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Digital Disconnect: Maintaining a Healthy Relationship with Social Media

By Maxwell Hawla | 5/4/17 12:32pm | Updated 5/4/17 9:55pm
Nicolla Etzion / American Word Magazine

One evening last fall, after exploring the sights and streets of Amsterdam, Nicolla Etzion, an American University junior, sat down for dinner with friends. Immediately, all of her friends pulled out their smartphones and began to scroll through their news feeds on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram. They chatted and sometimes paid attention to the table, but repeatedly checked their screens every few minutes. Their phones were left out on the table for easy access when not in use. As the group’s food and drinks arrived, some took photos to post later and others captured the moment on Snapchat. Etzion made an effort to keep her phone away and to enjoy the company of her friends, while observing their behavior as they focused more on their devices than on their surroundings. 

Moments like this have become a daily experience. And it has consequences. A 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Health showed that students used social media sites for an average 61 minutes per day. At the same time, more than 25 percent of students show signs of depression, in contrast to only 6.7 percent of the broader United States population. Other academics and scientists have linked social media use and adverse mental health effects in the past several years. 

With social media here to stay for the foreseeable future, how can we have a healthy relationship with it?

Founders of social media intended to create a means for further human connection. However, since social media’s genesis – with all the mobile apps, likes and location tags – sites like Facebook and Instagram seem to have mutated into a means of putting up appearances and comparing one another’s lives rather than fostering genuine connections. 

Just like Etzion’s experience with her friends in Amsterdam, it’s not uncommon for people to forgo their immediate means of in-person interactions for the content on their social media accounts. 

A study from the Pew Research Center observed 45 percent of Facebook users, 32 percent of Instagram users and 22 percent of Twitter users go onto the websites multiple times a day. “I used to be on it all the time,” Etzion admitted. “Sometimes it’s very mindless how you just scroll through it, looking at other people’s lives.” These days, when it comes to social settings, Etzion makes an effort to keep her phone away and to check her accounts only once or twice a day. 

Bretton Caws, a senior at AU, said he makes an effort to stay off social media as much as possible. “I try not to let it run my life,” he said. 

He described having a love-hate relationship with Facebook, his primary form of social media, and has accepted that he needs it for event planning and coordinating with AU’s frisbee team. “It upsets me that it’s a necessity but it really kind of is.” He compared quitting social media altogether to walking out of a room with a bunch of people in it. “Not being online means you’re not even an option to being invited to things,” said Caws.

Caws and Etzion have both experienced some degree of alienation from their social media use, especially when they were younger and newer to the sites and apps. Both reported feeling neglected when they had no notifications or lowered self-esteem when viewing photos of other people living seemingly glamorous lives. Additionally, they both expressed losing patience when it comes to the continuous stream of political articles, memes and trivial posts.

The most intuitive action to take, as Caws and Etzion have already discovered, is to reduce one’s use as much as possible. “I have this fantasy about when my phone finally dies,” Caws laughed, exhaling in indication that it would be a breath of fresh air. But there’s more to it than that. People’s actual time online must be adjusted as well.

“I cater my social media to what I want,” said Steven Baboun. As a senior in the School of Communication, Baboun’s online presence comes out of the necessity to promote his photography work and network professionally. “I got on Instagram to see my friends work or to connect with other artists,” said Baboun. He even went as far to say he loves social media. “I have a clear goal,” he clarified, “I don’t just scroll endlessly.”

Despite such an intent, Baboun does feel the action of checking his accounts as an instinct. On occasions where he does scroll through Facebook, he shared frustration similar to Etzion and Caws.

“Sometimes it takes a toll emotionally and mental health-wise. After the election, people posted valid emotions but it became not okay for me and I had to disconnect a bit,” said Baboun. 

Baboun’s successful effort to cater his feeds’ content and Etzion and Caws’ frustrations suggest an important requirement for a healthy relationship to social media: have a reason to be online. 

Although moments alone are generally the appropriate time to check social media, the circumstance of being alone should not be the reason to log on. “It’s dangerous to rely on that escape,” Etzion said. “I think it’s unhealthy to not know how to have alone time and spend that time on social media.” In fact, she added that she doesn’t view logging on as alone time at all.

“I do have the urge to post because I have so much work to share,” Baboun reiterated. “When I’m stuck creatively, I’m much less active on social media.” Given this capability to step back, he feels his relationship to social media is healthy overall. His professional and creative ambitions seem fit to online social networking.

Assess which sites work for you and how. Check the notification settings on your accounts and phone to ensure they meet your needs. Otherwise, make the effort to be with your thoughts, your friends and new people. There is a happy medium for everyone.

Etzion put it best: “I think with every good idea it can be used really well and benefit people but it can turn into something venomous. You've just gotta prove to yourself that you're doing the right thing and that you're having a good time."