A Senate testimony from a NYU Professor and social psychologist titled “Teen Mental Health Is Plummeting, and Social Media is a Major Contributing Cause” caught my attention being on the front page of HN today. The testimony shows that mental health among teens has worsened dramatically since around 2014, and there’s evidence to suggest that social media may be a strong causal factor. The decline in mental health is particularly drastic for girls, with 25% of U.S teens having had a major depressive episode in the last year compared to 9% of boys. When a quarter of teenage girls are having major depressive episodes, I think it’s fair to consider that a nationwide crisis.
I’m no psychologist, so take anything I say with a giant grain of salt, but here’s my armchair quarterback take on social media and declining mental health. The one sentence summary is: 99% of social media content is trash. 1% of content is good, under the right circumstances. It is your responsibility to filter out the bad, only expose yourself to the good, and discipline your usage to not get addicted.
I probably don’t have to convince anyone why most social media content is trash. Most of this content is at best a waste of time, or worse something that produces FOMO, insecurity, and toxic thoughts/behaviors.
Trash content has existed since before social media (eg. reality TV). What makes social media more addictive and dangerous are the platforms themselves. Smartphones mean most people are literally always plugged in all the time. The social media platforms themselves are designed to keep you as addicted as possible – with auto-playing, clickbait / attention-grabbing thumbnails, and shorter content.
Tik-Tok and Instagram reels are so addictive they’re basically like drugs. A friend of mine when we would hang out would occasionally start watching some Instagram stories or reels to kill time, then 10 minutes later I’d notice her totally zoned out watching one stupid 5 second video autoplay after another, and then have to bring her back to reality. Again, these platforms are literally like drugs. Personally I choose to abstain entirely from platforms like Tik-Tok because I find them to be a giant time sink with no value add to my life. I abstain from videogames for the same reason.
If one were disciplined enough and had the right mindset around everything, then social media need not be bad. There’s nothing wrong with spending a minute watching stories of people who inspire or entertain you every now and then. The problem is when that minute turns into hours of digital junk food. Social media addiction, like most addictions, is harmful and real, and must be treated seriously – though how to treat such an addiction is outside the scope of this article.
Here are some strategies I’ve adopted to minimize and/or improve my social media usage, though these tactics aren’t just limited to social media
- Don’t consume addictive trash content applications like Tik-Tok, Instagram reels, etc. I’m not saying there’s not valuable content on there, but you really should have a goal in mind when consuming anything there (eg. looking for photography inspiration on Instagram) so that you don’t just end up aimlessly killing time. I don’t have Tik-Tok installed on my phone, and rarely check Instagram (if I do it’s not for more than a minute or two, and probably with a specific intention like trying to post something, or “I wonder what X is up to”).
- Turn off all notifications for social media applications except direct messages
- Keep phone on silent mode and/or airplane mode. I usually have my phone on silent mode because it gives me more peace of mind knowing that my phone won’t just vibrate any second, destroying my focus and tempting me to see some notification that probabilistically is probably stupid (eg. random phone notifications) or not that urgent anyways.
- Try to spend more time productively. Consume high quality content. Try to stay away from wasting a lot of time pointlessly surfing random aggregators like Reddit, instead think “I want to learn more about X or do Y”, then research how to do it. Be a creator instead of another consumer with FOMO and anxiety envying other creators
- Watch higher quality content, podcasts, lectures, TED talks, deeper content
- Appreciate the act of just thinking about something deeply. When you’re constantly bombarded with other peoples’ opinions, you lose your own ability to think deeply, and become just a shell of other peoples’ opinions.
- Limit social media usage and screen time. Go for a walk, exercise, socialize, do something else every now and then. When you find yourself in an endless loop of refreshing feeds, it’s probably time to put the phone/laptop down and do something else.
- Use RSS feeds instead of social media platforms. RSS feeds are significantly less addicting, and you only see what you chose to follow. If you follow feeds that produce high quality longer form content, that’s what you’ll get.
- Write articles instead of internet comments. I used to have a pretty bad addiction to reading and writing internet comments. Now when I have the urge to comment, I just write an article like this one instead. Did I still waste my time writing out this long article, spending even more time because I hold an article to a higher standard than an internet comment? Maybe, but I feel significantly better having written this article then if I’d wasted all this time on an internet comment that probably no one will ever seen.