The New Rules of Social Media

Social media can mess with your mood. Here’s how some teens are making sure their apps are all about good vibes only.

If you don’t feel happier after a few minutes of scrolling through social media, there must be something the matter with you, right?

Wrong! In fact, if looking at posts of celebs and influencers living their best lives makes you feel worse about your own life, you’re not alone. According to recent studies, more than a third of teen girls and more than 10 percent of teen boys say Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves. Horrifyingly, 6 percent of users say the app has contributed to their having suicidal thoughts.

The studies revealing how Instagram is negatively affecting users were conducted by Insta’s own parent company, Facebook. After the studies became public, the U.S. Senate held two hearings questioning Facebook officials about the effects of Instagram on teens. As a result, Facebook and other social media companies are now on notice that they need to take more responsibility for their users’ mental health.

But you don’t need to wait for your favorite platforms to change their ways to make your scrolling experience more positive. By being mindful and intentional about how you use your favorite apps, you can make them places of positivity, inspiration, and joy. From setting timers to adjusting your preferences to simply taking a break, you have plenty of tools to fight the negative effects of social media on your self-esteem. Read on for real teens’ rules for making sure their apps actually make them feel awesome.

Social Media Rule 1: Set Limits

Why you need it:  Your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that governs self-control, is still developing, so it can be really hard to limit your app usage on your own. (Don’t feel bad—even adults with fully developed prefrontal cortexes struggle with this!) Plus, social media is literally engineered to be addictive, so what starts as a few quick minutes on Insta can easily turn into several hours of mindless scrolling.  

How to do it:  Use the screen time setting on your phone, features within the app, a separate free app, or even just the timer on your phone to set daily or weekly limits for how long you interact with social media. Most timers give you a warning when you’re reaching your limit and then shut down the app when time’s up.  

Why it works:  “It’s helpful to have that reminder of how much time has gone by,” says Alessa, 15, who uses timers to keep herself on track with schoolwork. “It’s a wake-up call to get up and get some work done.” Allie, 15, uses the screen time tracker app RealizD, which has time challenges that help her stay off her phone as long as possible.

Social Media Rule 2: "Like" Authenticity 

Why you need it: Comparing yourself with unrealistically perfect photos on social media is a surefire way to feel less-than. Following people who are willing to be real about the way they look and feel can be a game-changer. “Social media can make me worry I’m not interesting or pretty enough,” says Elyn, 16. “When I see a video or post celebrating people’s true selves or saying that everyone is pretty, it makes me feel better.”

How to do it: Edit your feed so you follow only people whose posts feel authentic and relatable to you. When Alessa comes across content that makes her feel bad about herself on TikTok, she gives it a long tap to access the “Not interested” option. “It’s hard not to compare yourself to the pictures on social media, but organizing your feed to only see stuff that is interesting to you is very helpful,” she says. 

Why it works: By following realistic and relatable accounts, you’ll be inspired to be more authentic too. Bonus: You’ll spend time enjoying life instead of worrying about what your selfies look like.

Social Media Rule 3: Play Favorites 

Why you need It:  Trying to keep up with TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter (not to mention, ahem, homework) can be seriously stressful. Plus, not all these platforms work for everyone. With so many options, there’s no reason to spend time on an app that isn’t a great fit for you. 

How to do it:  Notice how your mood changes depending on the platform you’re on, and try to limit or eliminate apps that consistently make you feel bad. For example, Seth, 14, mostly sticks to TikTok: “Their algorithm is scarily accurate, so I only see stuff that makes me feel good,” he says. Meanwhile, Ava, 17, only posts to her Snapchat private stories. “That way, only my close friends see my posts, so I don’t worry about what others will think,” she says. 

Why it works: Think about it this way: If apps were people, would you want to hang around ones who made you feel bad? The good news is, apps won’t be mad if you choose one over another.

Social Media Rule 4: Take a Full-On Break

Why you need it: “Most teens are on social media because it has become a habit, and habits are hard to break,” explains LaNail Plummer, a therapist who works with teens. But it can be done. “People say, ‘I could never do that,’” says Alessa, who stopped using TikTok. “But to be honest, anyone can. It was hard at first, but it didn’t take Iong before I started feeling better about myself and realizing I was happier.” 

How to do it: There are a lot of ways to take a vacay from social media. One idea is to delete all your apps, then add back just the ones you truly miss after a few days. Another option is to schedule weeklong social media “fasts” every few months. If it feels easier to have company on your social media break, ask your family to join you in device-free meals, or even an entire day of the weekend where no one looks at any of their apps.

Why it works: Taking a break from social media, even for a short time, can give you some distance to evaluate the role your favorite apps play in your mental health. All that extra free time might also give you a chance to rediscover a hobby you love even more than swiping and scrolling.

Social Media Rule 5: Try New Follows

Why you need it: Influencers and celebs get the lion’s share of attention, but there’s so much more to social media than people looking cool. Like, for example, people doing cool stuff. Think of your platforms as windows into other worlds instead of mirrors of how your life should look, and you’ll get a lot more out of them. 

How it works: Think about following accounts based on their content rather than their creators. If you’re into something, social media is a great place to learn more about it and find a community. Leo, 14, enjoys yoga, so he created an Instagram account just for posting and seeing yoga-related content. He says the community tends to be inspiring and supportive. “It’s a very wholesome corner of the internet,” he says. 

Why it works: When you use social media as a tool for knowledge, “it becomes more purposeful as opposed to a platform for comparison,” Plummer says. For example, Elyn used social media to learn to sew her own clothes. “It helped my mental health,” she says. “Every time I make something new, I feel a big boost of happiness.”

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