How to Break Your Social Media Addiction, According to a Psychologist

We all know we need to cut back on the scrolling, so why is it so dang hard?

social media addiction

Photo via Getty Images/CASEZY

When someone asks me what I do first thing in the morning I cringe. Then, I proceed to shamefully admit that I turn my alarm off on my phone and scroll through Instagram. Before I’ve even had the chance to brush my teeth or wash my face I’m already instantly infatuated with whatever people are doing online. And I know it needs to change.

But the last time I was asked this question was about two months ago and have I changed my ways? Not even a little bit. We all know how unproductive, and sometimes harmful to our mental health, social media can be. It has been linked to body dysmorphia and depression, among other things. So why is it so easy to get sucked into a vortex of pretty pictures, funny memes, and whatever the heck Aunt Sally was doing last weekend in Michigan? And why is it so hard to cut back?

Lisa Lewis, a licensed psychologist in Brookline who works with clients struggling with relationships, depression, anxiety, or an addiction with a special focus on fitness tells me the answer is simple. “It’s because the point of these apps is to keep you looking,” she says. “They want you to buy, and get you to follow and like. Their sole purpose is to win your attention.”

She says you must be intentional about using any social media platform. “Don’t just go on and scroll,” she explains. “Just like you wouldn’t walk up to the refrigerator and stare at what’s inside for no reason don’t do the same with social media.”

If social media is hindering your productivity and overall mental health Lewis offers these steps:

  1. Set an intention any time you go on any platform. If you use Instagram to draw workout inspiration, do that and then get off of it. If you want to see what your friend is up to on Facebook, go look and then get off.
  2. Use a timer. On iPhones these days you can set a timer for how many hours a day you spend on social media. Set it and don’t ignore it.
  3. Create a reward to reinforce the behavior. Lewis calls this creating a carrot for yourself. When you set that timer and don’t ignore it, positively reinforce the behavior with anything from a tasty snack to an item you’ve been eyeing on Amazon.
  4. Structure your work day accordingly. If social media scrolling is a part of your job, set up times within your work schedule to do it and only do it during those times.

For all the ways social media has made society more connected (i.e. making new friends, keeping in touch with old ones, finding motivation, etc.), it’s still also important to keep in mind that it takes you out of your own life. It brings you into another person’s perfectly presented and curated reality, Lewis says. And that can be harmful when we begin to compare our whole reality to this one snapshot of someone else’s.

In the wellness industry, social media has completely transformed the way we go about looking for health information, exercise tips, and nutrition guidance. Anyone is an expert, and that can also be dangerous, Lewis warns. “You might be viewed as a fitness influencer if you have big glutes or strong arms,” she says. “And when people see that, they are influenced in a different way. We take in that information as true even when it’s not coming from an academic source maybe because we want to look like them or have what they have.”

It’s dangerous because there’s no filter. “No one is protecting the people who are consuming that information,” Lewis says. “In the era of fitness magazines there still might have been pretty pictures and they were pushing content but someone was still editing it. Publications have an ethical responsibility to provide good content.”

It’s easier said than done, but you have to do that editing work yourself now. “There’s plenty of stuff that can be inspirational and informational,” Lewis adds. “And then there is plenty of garbage.” We are now inundated with information, but that just means we have to break out Google when someone is claiming something or ask an expert. And if it’s making you feel like trash, unfollow, delete, or turn it off.

“When you’re scrolling, you should be nodding your head and mentally high-fiving the person on the screen,” Lewis says. “That’s authentic content to you, and you can benefit from that. If it’s making you feel some type of way, it’s not serving you.”

So, here’s to applying timers, intentions, and a little skepticism to your social media routine. And to remember to disconnect from screens, tiny boxes, and updates every once in a while.