Many of us have a love-hate relationship with social media. But when you’re seeking some crowd-sourced support to inspire your fitness routine, there’s no denying those “likes” and “you got this” comments on Facebook or Instagram can feel like a giant group hug. It’s like your closest friends collectively clapping when you announce you signed up for a 10K race or made the perfect smoothie bowl.
Social media can, in fact, help people achieve their goals by providing critical support. A new study by researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School found that people in a weight loss program who developed a strong online community on Twitter were more successful than those who didn’t. “With anything that’s difficult, any kind of positive reinforcement that people get along the way can keep them motivated,” says Christine May, postdoctoral research fellow who led the study.
When Social Media Becomes a Downer
“Many studies show that people who are online on a regular basis have higher levels of anxiety and depression.”
All that validation feels amazing…until it doesn’t. Psychologists recognize more and more that social media has a dark side. First, it tempts people to feel bad about their own lives by comparing themselves to friends who look good in millennial pink yoga pants or travel every weekend. On the other side, users can also get hooked on the crowd’s adoration.
“Many studies [like this one from the University of California at San Diego] show that people who are online on a regular basis have higher levels of anxiety and depression,” says Lisa Strohman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Technology Wellness Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. “People are going to social media platforms to make themselves feel better. But then it only makes them feel better if someone has liked one of their photos.”
Some experts even go so far as to label your frequent Facebook refreshing as an actual addiction. “The term addiction might be harsh, but the brain doesn’t distinguish between rewards coming from substances and rewards coming from behaviors that generate enjoyment, such as sex and gambling,” says Ofir Turel, PhD, professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University at Fullerton, who has written about the neural effects of Facebook addiction.
“Social media provides a special type of reward called a variable reward — you don’t know what to expect every time you log in,” Turel explains. “Sometimes your friend posted something interesting. Sometimes you get a lot of likes and sometimes you don’t get any. Over time, the brain learns to expect these rewards and seeks them out more often.” In simple terms, such rewards release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. This compels us to log onto Facebook in the middle of the night to get more of it.
How to Spot a Social Media Addiction
So, how can you tell whether your Insta impulse is unhealthy? It should hold a lower spot on your priority list than real-life pursuits, such as working, socializing and actually admiring the new spring flowers, rather than simply posting about them, says Turel. The good news is that unlike hard drugs, you’re not a slave to Facebook or Snapchat. Most people’s social media addiction is on the mild side, explains Turel, whose research shows that it’s possible to get it under control.
To help you stay sane with social media and keep your usage in check, follow these four powerful strategies.
4 Tips for Finally Putting Down Your Phone
1. Set times to check it.
You’ll still keep up on your friends’ posts when you spend less time online. If you’re used to checking your favorite sites every few minutes, Strohman suggests challenging yourself to peek at them once an hour. “Maybe you can work up to a couple times a day. Or even shut them off one full day a week,” says Strohman. (She practices “Tech-Free Tuesday” with her kids at home.) A crucial step: Stay off your devices right when you wake up or before you go to sleep. “We absorb the equivalent of six newspapers a day, but our brains weren’t developed to handle this. We need time to actively recover,” Strohman says. After all that’s information overload at its finest.
2. Don’t expect anything in return.
People who receive a strong sense of support through social networking sites are particularly vulnerable to this addiction. That’s according to a study at Western Connecticut State University on factors that create such dependency among young adults. In other words, it’s the same dynamic for dieters looking for “likes” when they post a progress pics of their weight loss results.
What you should do: Post for your own sake, simply because it feels good to share what’s going on in your world. “You should be OK if no one responds,” says Strohman. “You want to depend on your own internal purpose.”
3. Remember that people’s responses aren’t about you.
You’ll feel better when you stop trying to make sense of why one friend responds to one post and not the other, says May. Some people avoid responding to depressing posts, such as “I had a difficult week.” Often times, they just don’t know how to acknowledge tough subjects. “They might be uncomfortable and don’t want to make you feel worse,” says May. “Or if they’re struggling with their own weight, they might feel awkward congratulating you.” Whatever their reasons, don’t let comment stinginess bring you down.
4. Aim to inspire others.
A couple years ago, when college student Macy Vonderschmidt embarked on a 12-week fitness quest, she created the Instagram account @macys_fitlife. There, she posted pics of her meals and workout selfies. After developing a habit of obsessively tallying her responses, she decided to check less and post with the intention of helping others. “I didn’t want to be this annoying person who was posting for attention,” says Vonderschmidt, 21, a senior at University of North Carolina at Charlotte who now has nearly 50,000 followers. “The way I look at Instagram is to empower others by being relatable and funny. It’s not to validate myself.”
This subtle shift in perspective helped her enjoy the camaraderie of the fitness community. “The likes, the followers and recognition really mean nothing to me,” she says. “The daily support, love and inspiration I get from my audience means everything. It’s really something special.”
Learn the difference between posting for yourself versus others. It just might make you enjoy life more — and not only the social media side.