Screen Time

Collage of mothers doomscrolling social media while holding their kids

How to Stop Doomscrolling & Enjoy Social Media Again

Social media algorithms are designed to suck you in and keep you scrolling. But you can break the cycle and have a healthier relationship with your phone.

by Alex Hazlett
Screen Time

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I have a bottomless appetite for doomscrolling and that Instagram can make me feel both better and worse in the same session. This isn’t an earth-shattering revelation, to be sure, but in the Before Times I had friends to hang out with and now I only have their Instagram Stories to watch.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with social media for years. Facebook was a garbage fire of misinformation long before the pandemic; it's also the place where I got information from my neighbors and the local school PTA. Instagram, for all its problems with vaccine misinformation and other conspiracy theories, has been a surprising lifeline this year while I’ve been cut off from the people I love — or even merely like. Watching mundane 10-second videos of their kids, their baking, and their house projects has been a ballast of normalcy in a tumultuous time.

As we close in on a year of lockdowns and social distancing — and since I know I’m still going to be indulging in regular scrolling bursts while hiding from my children — I decided to see if I could make Instagram a better place to be. Luckily for us all, It turns out there are evidence-based strategies for using social media and digital devices in ways that are supportive of mental health and wellbeing. Now’s a great time to try them out. Much of this advice works for teens and tweens, as well as adults.

Choose your follows carefully.

First and foremost, supportive social media use “looks like meaningful connections,” says Danielle Ramo, PhD, clinical psychologist and senior director of research at Hopelab, a social innovation lab that builds behavior change tech to support teen and young adult health and wellbeing.

Go beyond liking posts and reacting with emojis, she said, and cultivate connections with people you know or would like to know better. Social media can also facilitate asking for supportive feedback from a community when something doesn’t go how we hoped it would.

“So it's not so other-focused, or it's not so comparison-focused and it's not so wallowing-focused but it's more support-generative,” she says.

Supportive social media use “looks like meaningful connections.”

I’ve pushed myself to leave a full comment on a story or post instead of just an emoji reaction and I’ve noticed a payoff. It feels like a meaningful exchange, even though it’s still short.

Research in 2019 from The Female Lead, a UK non-profit, found that following inspirational, positive accounts on the platform significantly altered the experience for study participants. The study focused on young girls in particular, but the actions can apply more broadly: Follow positive role models, expand the breadth of content you follow, and keep comments kind.

It’s a recipe for popping a filter bubble and then making the algorithm create a virtuous circle of more interesting content — the opposite of doom-scrolling. The Female Lead has a list of suggested accounts to follow as a starting point.

For me, this has looked like following the accounts of people I know well in real life and want to stay connected to, or those of experts whose work I follow. The latter group includes accounts like themompsychologist, run by psychologist Dr. Jazmine McCoy, adviceIgivemyfriends, which is run by pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin, and Practical Business School, run by media entrepreneur Meg Keene. Young Native and Indigenous creators (who are often reposting from TikTok) are another bright spot in my feed – accounts like James Jones, Michelle Chubb, and Tia Wodd. I’ve excised the influencer middle – the people trying to sell me on a lifestyle I can’t possibly entertain right now.

Be grateful and build resilience.

Gratitude, though it may feel cheesy or inadequate at times, is a valuable practice with a long history. Giving back to our communities and volunteering are other-focused activities that can benefit the giver as well as the recipients. Social media can be a place to celebrate small wins or keep apprised of opportunities to volunteer safely or donate.

“Those kinds of practices can be very supportive to our mental health and if young people are using social media to get that kind of feedback, it absolutely can support and promote our well being,” Ramo says.

On Instagram, I’ve been following accounts like The Conscious Kid, Queens Care Collective, and the Astoria Food Pantry. There are likely local versions of the latter two accounts across the country, and they can be helpful in grounding you in your community at a time when you can’t see each other in person.

For so many people, 2020 has been an exceptionally lonely year. Teens and young adults in particular have been cut off from their friends. It’s important to focus on the ways we all can connect and remind ourselves and our children that this won’t last forever, says Ramo. For now, at least, social media can help us do this.

“It's both having the psychological frame that kids are resilient [and] that they will get through this and talking about it as a temporary situation while simultaneously fostering ways that they can connect,” Ramo says.

This way of looking at the situation can help develop coping skills and resilience that will pay off now and later in life.

Add in a little mindfulness.

With work and socializing all taking place on a screen, I’ve never been more attached to — or desperate to get away from — my devices. I feel like I check for notifications even more than usual out of boredom.

Incorporating moments of pause before I pick up my phone has helped me figure out whether Instagram or checking my email is really what I want to be doing. Often it’s simply a reflex in a down moment, and one that often makes me more stressed. Choosing more intentional moments for and ways of connecting is a habit I’m hoping to continue. It’s something Ramo is hopeful about as well.

“I think COVID has been a massive re-start moments for a lot of us around what we value, and how we want to be in the world. So, while families have often been some of the only people that we see, it's also helped us to connect with our families in different ways. It's helped us to connect with people that we love and care about in different ways, even when they don't live in the same household as us.”

Alex Hazlett writes about tech and parenting for Romper. She is a freelance journalist based in New York who covers technology and family life. Previously, she was the Director of Special Projects at Mashable.