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Social Media and Mental Health Part 3: Gaining Control Over Social Media

As we have seen in parts one and two of this series on Social Media and Mental Health, the vast array of social media options available today offers a mixture of positives and negatives. While we might want to take advantage of the benefits of social media, we must also be aware of the potential pitfalls. Guarding against the dangers does not need to be complicated, but it does require intentionality and discipline.

In this final installment of the series, we will explore ways you can protect yourself against the perils of social media. Depending on how you are personally affected by social media, some suggestions may be more practical than others. Ultimately, the goal is to get to a place where you control social media rather than allowing it to control you.

To enjoy the benefits of social media while safeguarding yourself against the dangers, consider adopting these eight habits:

1. Prioritize face-to-face interactions.

In other words, go offline long enough to build authentic relationships with others without centering them around a computer screen. By interacting face-to-face, you can also ensure that your relationships are not being filtered like the false realities we tend to project on social media. If you can enjoy social media and keep your other relationships in balance, great. But do not allow social media to replace personal interactions.

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul explained, “We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.” He went on to say, “Live in harmony with each other” (Romans 12:5,16, NLT). He understood that, as believers, we belong to each other and we need one another. Only when we live within a faith community with authentic relationships can we experience life the way it was meant to be lived.

The Vatican has also recognized the dangers of social media. In a statement released in 2011, the Pope warned:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbour” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

– Pope Benedict XVI , Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age, January 24, 2011, Feast of Saint Francis de Sales

2. Evaluate how social media is currently affecting you.

Identify 4-5 activities that you really enjoy, but that social media is preventing you from enjoying. Is social media keeping you from connecting with friends that you love and value? Is it keeping you from a hobby that you would find refreshing and reenergizing? Is it causing you to compromise the quality of your work?

While you’re at it, evaluate how you are being affected in other ways, too. How is the time you spend reading posts and watching videos affecting your theology? How are your views of violence and sexuality changing because of social media? Is your use of abusive or offensive language increasing because you are online?

The New Testament contains a letter that Paul wrote to Timothy, cautioning him about the importance of monitoring his beliefs and practices. He wrote, “Keep a close watch on how you live and on your teaching. Stay true to what is right for the sake of your own salvation and the salvation of those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16, NLT). We, too, must watch how we live and what we believe, taking note of how we are being affected by the media we consume.

This is essentially about doing a reality check. How have you been affected—positively or negatively—and do changes need to be made?

3. Monitor the content that you post.

Have you noticed how vicious people can be online? Not only do people create idealized pictures of what their lives are like, but they also feel at liberty to take shots at other people in ways that they never would one-on-one. The abusive tone that some people take online can cause significant damage, whether to another’s self-image or to their own souls. in contrast, consider this advice from Ephesians:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:29-32, NIV).

This passage provides a good filter for determining what you will and will not post online. Measure your words against this standard to ensure your postings build others up rather than tear them down.

4. Be guarded in what you share.

How much information do you want others to have about you, and how much access do you want them to have to you? Establish a practical habit of maintaining a high standard of privacy when it comes to your online activity, while regulating how much personal information you divulge.

Remember, too, that not everything and not everyone is as it appears to be online. Online predators frequently create façades to lure unsuspecting victims—often children—into dangerous relationships. Jesus warned against wolves in sheep’s clothing; He was talking about false prophets, but it also seems applicable regarding online predators.

To protect yourself, select privacy settings that are appropriate for your needs. Plus, whenever you post anything online, assume it’s there to stay. You may later choose to delete it, but it may have already been downloaded and reposted multiple times. If you post embarrassing or inappropriate content, it has a way of coming back to bite you, regardless of what your privacy settings are.

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving… For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord… Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise…” Ephesians 5:3-4, 8-10,15, NIV).

5. Limit your access.

A recent article in Time describes how some mental health advocacy groups are now recommending that social media sites implement a “heavy usage” pop-up warning that pops up on your screen if you’ve been on for an excessive amount of time. This is a step in the right direction, but why wait? Don’t count on a social media algorithm to tell you when you’ve been online too long; take steps to control access yourself.

For example, you could delete the apps from your phone—maybe for a week, a month, or forever. You could choose to only access the apps between certain hours of the day, or you could set aside a day every week when you stay away from social media completely.

Perhaps for you, turning it off isn’t enough. Maybe you need to completely eliminate the very possibility by physically getting away from your devices or even deactivating your accounts. You need to remove the temptation.

As you begin to limit access, you may discover just how dependent you have become on social media. It may be difficult for you to even endure the break, but the break may be just what you need to restore balance in your life.

This is all about establishing boundaries for social media, reclaiming your life, and keeping things in perspective. If this is something that’s hard to do, it’s probably exactly what you need to do. Sometimes extreme measures are necessary. Jesus said (albeit in a different context), “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30, NIV).

6. Celebrate, don’t compare.

Whenever you find yourself reading someone’s posts, browsing their photos, or watching their videos online, avoid the temptation to compare your life to theirs. For one thing, chances are their life isn’t everything it appears to be. For another, it doesn’t do any good to compare anyway; it just makes you feel envious and depressed.

The Bible doesn’t call us to compare ourselves to the success of others; it tells us to celebrate with them. It tells us to share in their joy, which can often lift our own spirits. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15, NIV).

7. Treat social media like a guest in your home.

If you had company that was abusive toward you and continually spoke profanity in front of your children, how long would it take before you asked them to leave? Or if they stayed until all hours of the night, would you reach a point where you ask them to go home? Why should social media be treated any differently?

Sometimes social media overstays its welcome and you simply have to turn it off. If someone is abusive toward you online, you can unfriend them, block them, or even report them. If you are uncomfortable with the graphic or explicit content you view online, there’s no reason you have to continue subjecting yourself to it.

Solomon wrote, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). If guarding your heart means kicking social media out of your home (or at least limiting how long it can stay), then so be it.

8. Be accountable.

If social media is an area of struggle for you, talk with a trusted friend and ask him or her to hold you accountable for maintaining boundaries in your life. Give permission for your friend to confront you if concerns should arise.

You could also take advantage of programs like Celebrate Recovery for accountability and support. If your struggle goes beyond that, then reach out to organizations that specialize in social media addictions and mental health. There’s strength that comes from community and accountability.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour:
If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up… 
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, 12, NIV)

The world of social media is fraught with danger, with potentially damaging consequences for the user’s mental health and interpersonal relationships. You can mitigate the risk, however, by adopting some wise habits. Instead of allowing social media to control you, you can take control of social media.