5 Ways to Create a Positive Online Social Life

Healthy Living

May 5, 2020

Spending more time online these days? You’re not the only one. Thanks in some part to widespread social distancing, we’re plugging in more often to work, play and feel less isolated. The New York Times analyzed traffic data and found that Facebook usage alone jumped 27% between January 15 and March 24.

But our bump in online connections didn’t happen overnight. 

You can probably guess that plenty of humans have been filling their free time with social media over the last decade. Since 2010, the number of people using social networks worldwide has steadily tripled, from nearly 1 billion users back then to about 3 billion as of this year.

And while there are definite benefits to building an online community of like-minded souls, all that web-based socializing can take a toll on your mental health. If you’re feeling taxed, stressed, anxious and all around vexed at the state of the world, your social media landscape might be part of the problem.

Perhaps it’s time for a little mental breather?

In honor of Mental Health Month — and ongoing social distancing efforts — here are five ways to build healthier relationships online.

1) Cull your friends and followers.

When’s the last time you took a good, hard look at your list of friends on social media? Chances are that you’ve been collecting people over the years like a magpie building a nest of memories.

That funny guy from your college chemistry class eight years ago

Your second cousin who constantly pushes her multi-level marketing scheme. 

A woman who always wishes you a Happy Birthday but whose face you wouldn’t recognize in a crowd.

Part of taking care of your mental health means making room for genuine relationships. And just as a decaying tree needs pruning, a social media life filled with people who don’t spark joy — to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo — is going to tax you more than a life filled with positive influences.

Now, that’s not to say that you should live in an echo chamber. You can have and maintain good, solid relationships with people who don’t share your worldview or opinions on politics. It just might take more effort than if you agreed on everything.

But if your friends’ lists include people who consistently make you feel bad or whose posts fill your feed with bigoted content, for instance, then take some time to cull the herd. Surround your virtual (and physical) life with people who support and care about you, even if you stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Keep in mind, too, that you don’t necessarily have to unfriend or block someone altogether. Hide, mute or unfollow people whose posts bug you and see if that helps.

And the same advice applies regardless of platform. Your Facebook or Instagram page might be more personal than your Twitter feed, but consider your followers and friends wherever you roam online. You don’t have to give every voice equal weight in your life. 

Save your headspace for the people that help and encourage you, make you laugh and think, and challenge you without tearing you down. A balanced social feed is a happy one.

2) Subscribe to things you like — and ditch what you don’t.

In the same way that you need a cultivated friends’ list for peace of mind, you should follow a diverse but manageable group of interests online. In short? “Follow” things you like and ditch what you don’t.

We’re not suggesting that you subscribe to every newspaper of a particular persuasion while ignoring all the rest. As with your group of friends, it’s good to challenge your views by following other, less biased news and information sources. 

But there’s a difference between staying on top of current events and drowning in the voices of talking heads. Consider the following when deciding how to cultivate your social feeds:

  • Is the page or group helpful, informative, entertaining and/or uplifting?
  • Does this entity make you feel better or worse on a consistent basis — and why?
  • If you were to stop following this page, person or group, how would you feel?

That last question doesn’t have to be hypothetical. Facebook lets you “hide” pages and people for 30 days at a time. Try it out with things you’re not so sure about. If you find that after a month of hiding someone or something, you feel better (or worse), then you can decide whether to stay a fan or cut ties.

Life online can feel very public sometimes, but remember that you can take control of your virtual space. 

Just as you can invite who and what you bring into your home, you can decide who and what — to some degree — shows up in your social feeds. Use that power to create a space that works for you.

3) Have a chat in real time, even if it’s virtual.

Social media gives us a way to connect with people when we can’t see them in real life. But being unable to chat in person doesn’t mean we can’t see and talk to each other in real time. Video calls, messaging apps and plain old text make it easy to keep up with the people we love most.

We bring up this point — obvious though it might be to some — because real-time communication might feel like an exhausting proposition. At the end of a long day, it can be tempting to don your sweats, flop on the couch and zone out while you thumb through an infinite scroll of social posts.

Break the cycle.

You can still flop on your couch, of course. But instead of zoning out on celebrity tweets and Pinterest-worthy back porch makeovers, hop into your preferred video chat app and connect with someone you care about. 

Research suggests that the friendships you make as a young adult can influence your well-being 30 years later. Feed those relationships well and often with regular contact.

And if you’re just not into phone or video calls, try a real-time chat via text or a messaging app. Having someone to talk to can lift your mood — and you may lift someone else’s, too.

4) Say “yes” more (or less).

Are you someone who automatically ignores or checks “maybe” to social events online? Do you join groups just to lurk without participating? Time to branch out a bit, friend. 

Engaging online can be stressful — if you don’t do it in a healthy way. Instead of using your time and energy to argue with strangers, channel your creative zeal into participating in things you care about. That might include:

  • Posting in groups
  • Responding to people’s comments in a helpful way
  • Creating virtual events, like watch parties on Facebook or live chats on Twitter
  • Saying “yes” to invites from other people for things that interest you

The “say yes” attitude will help you build better relationships online. Plus, your social feeds will show you more content that you like seeing. Facebook, for example, seems to prioritize the people and content you already engage with — meaning you’ll see more of it over time.

But if you’re already someone who says yes to all the things, it may be time to take a step back and reassess that approach.

It’s good to branch out and cultivate a pleasing online experience for yourself, but you run the risk of running yourself ragged if you become an automatic yes-man. According to the Mayo Clinic, saying “no” when you need to is a good stress reliever. Setting and sticking to your boundaries can feel awkward for some, but keeping your emotional plate balanced is an essential skill.

Consider the things you enjoy and have time for before committing to every invite that pops up in your notifications.

5) Take regular breaks.

If the virtual world starts taking up more mental space than you can afford, it’s time to take a break. You don’t need to cut ties with social media forever. But a short break every now and again to refocus your energy and clear your mind can do wonders for your mental health. 

Try going offline for a set time each day, perhaps right before bed. If that’s normally when you scroll Instagram and save a few Pins on Pinterest, consider shifting your social time to earlier in the day. Sleep experts suggest unplugging from all electronics shortly before bed anyway. You may get a better night’s sleep as a bonus.

And if you’re feeling even bolder, try taking an even longer social media hiatus to see how the world looks beyond the glow of a screen. It’s easy to lose a bit of yourself online, even with your best intentions. Take a break when you need it. Your friends, followers and favorite pages will be waiting when you get back.

After all, absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder.