Social media isn’t all bad. It is, believe it or not, possible to have at least a semi-healthy, somewhat-disciplined relationship with social media. At least I think it is. By the grace of God I have seen great improvement in my own relationship with social media over the last five years or so.
When I graduated college in 2013 and began my first real job, which required always having an eye on social media, I struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with social media even on personal time. I was always connected. Social media affected my mood. Whether or not I got in an argument with someone online would impact my day. I had every notification possible turned on and every free moment was filled with scrolling.
These days, I don’t have any notifications turned on, I get in virtually zero arguments on social media, and while I find myself scrolling and chuckling on TikTok more often than I would like, I spend far less time scrolling social media than I used to. My relationship with social media is far from perfect, but it is much improved. How did I manage to move into a position of health with social media? By the grace of God and by taking some intentional steps to own my relationship with social media rather than letting social media own me, which it had come to do.
Below are some super practical, super simple, ways to tame your relationship with social media. Perhaps there are some you have tried, and maybe there are some you haven’t even considered!
Whether or not you deploy any of these tactics, I beg you to find ways to not let social media happen to you, but to actively choose to spend set amounts of time on social media.
Here are five tactics toward a more healthy, intentional relationship with social media:
1. Set time limits.
I am so grateful that every iPhone comes with the Screen Time feature today. The Screen Time feature on the iPhone has been one of the most revolutionary helps for me as I have worked to tame my relationship with social media.
Of course, various screen time restrictions can be easy to get around if you hold the passcodes necessary to override your restrictions. And sometimes I override my screen time limits! But most of the time I don’t. Beyond the actual time limit functions, I appreciate the function that puts my phone to sleep around 9pm and does not allow my to access certain apps before I start working around 7am. This has allowed me to protect my quiet, devotional time in the morning from the noise of email or Twitter or TikTok.
If you find yourself overriding your screen time limits too frequently, give the passcode to your screen time function to a spouse or a friend so that you can’t override the restrictions.
2. Turn off all notifications.
This is a super simple one. We could all live with fewer notifications I think. This summer when we spent a week at the beach in Florida, I turned off all email notifications. I don’t usually find myself stressed out by email, but the relief that came with never receiving an email notification was great.
I haven’t had any notifications turned on for social media platforms for something like six years now. Here’s why this is important: when you turn off notifications, you are deciding when you engage with social media apps rather than the apps beckoning you to engage with them.
It was around the 2016 presidential election season that I became most aware of my unhealthy relationship with social media, and it was then that I realized how my Twitter notifications were a sort of whistle that would grab my attention dozens of times per day. And I found myself creating content with the hope of generating more notifications, more whistles, more affirmations of my existence even if not my ideas.
Notifications are one of the clearest ways social media apps make themselves masters of our time and attention. When we turn off all notifications, at least for social media apps, we put the reins in our own hands. We make it a little bit easier to own our relationship with these platforms.
3. Put your phone to bed someplace else.
From the time I got an iPhone around 2012 until 2020, I used my phone as my alarm clock. It’s just so convenient to have your phone right by the bed and to wake up to whatever sound you want it to blast when it’s time to get out of bed in the morning.
Fortunately, I rarely found myself scrolling on my phone in bed. Truly. I have never had a perfect relationship with my phone or social media, but scrolling on social media in bed and delaying sleep has honestly never really been a problem. I seriously value my sleep and prefer to read a book before turning out the light.
However, I did find that having my phone by my bed made it far too enticing to check Twitter or email immediately upon waking. So for a while in 2020, I had my phone “sleeping” in my home office and I bought an old school alarm clock. That was fine. But eventually I decided a sort of “happy medium” would be to have my phone sleeping on my dresser in our bedroom, out of reach of the bed, but close enough that I could use it as a sort of distant alarm clock that would require me to get up out of bed to turn off the alarm.
Whatever you find to be the right answer for you, I would encourage you to try sleeping without your phone on your bedside table if you aren’t doing it already. It can help you have a healthier relationship not only with social media, but with your phone in general.
4. Ask questions of social platforms.
This tactic is really wrapped up in the newsletter I wrote last week. Here’s a bit of what I wrote:
First, identify the two or three or four social media platforms you use the most. For me, I would consider Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. Maybe for you it’s Instagram and Facebook. Whatever they are, identify the social media platforms where you spend the most time.
Then, ask this question:
“What do I hope (social media platform) does for me?”
Or, asked another way:
“What is my goal when I open (social media platform)?”
So for me, I would ask, “What do I hope Twitter does for me?” Or, “What is my goal when I open TikTok?”
These sorts of questions may seem silly, and I get it. But I think we should ask them because I think these sorts of questions can help us be more intentional in our relationship with social media.
5. Invest in offline relationships.
I have low-grade social anxiety, I think. I struggle to hang around after church and chit-chat with people, even people I love and who are my friends! It genuinely makes my skin crawl. Going to vaguely-defined social functions that have no end time, like “open houses” of various sorts, makes me as anxious as doctor’s appointments used to make me when I was a kid, which is to say, very.1
On top of that, I am just a massive introvert. I would usually rather spend a Saturday night reading or writing or playing video games by myself than hanging out with a bunch of friends—and I love my friends!
All of this is to say, “investing in offline relationships” can be difficult for me. But, I have found that I am much more comfortable having an intentional coffee date with a friend than hanging around a larger, undefined social gathering. And as I have been slowly but surely working toward a more healthy relationship with social media the last six years or so, spending more time each week in face-to-face conversations with friends than I spend scrolling social media has been a goal, even if not always achieved.
I am sure that if I looked at my screen time and compared it to how much time I spend with friends, I still probably spend more time scrolling social media in a given week than I do spending time with friends—the screen is just more convenient and always available. But I would bet my screen time is lower and my friend-time is higher than it was four or five years ago.
If we want to have a healthier, more intentional relationship with social media, we should do what we can to invest in more incarnational relationships than digital ones.
6. Have accountability.
If we hope to adopt any of the tactics I’ve just listed, we will need a spouse or a friend to help keep us accountable. It isn’t easy to try to have a healthier relationship with social media, and we shouldn’t expect to do it alone.
As I write in the chapter on accountability in my book Terms of Service:
We are all helplessly blind to our own weakness, and we are conditioned by the culture in which we live to believe that weakness is something of which we should be ashamed. This produces a deadly scenario in which we repeatedly make foolish decisions, are negatively affected by the decisions of others, and have no means of growing in maturity and self-control. The reality is that, whether because of blinding pride or willful ignorance, most of us simply have not grasped the wide variety of ways in which our obsession with the social internet affects our lives. Human nature makes it difficult for us to see those effects with our own eyes—like trying to look at ourselves without a mirror. When we establish accountability, we set up a mirror so that we might have a better view of ourselves and how we are being shaped by our always-online lives.
Just as looking in a real mirror is not always a pleasant experience, neither is having conversations with those who keep us accountable. But we ought not avoid hard conversations because they make us uncomfortable; we ought to welcome them because they lead to humility and maturity. The social internet is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used for both construction and destruction. More often than not, we either wield it in destructive ways or are impacted by others wielding it in recklessness or with the intent to harm. Let’s not fall for the lie that we can do it alone.
We could all benefit from a trusted friend or mentor with whom we could regularly meet and be open about our shortcomings. But establishing an accountability relationship is sort of “level two” of a friendship—we must first build real, off-line relationships. Your Facebook friends or Instagram followers are no replacement for real friends and offline relationships.
It Isn’t About Perfection
I do not have a perfect relationship with social media, and here I’ve written one book about social media and am about to publish a second. But being more intentional in our relationship with social media isn’t about having the perfect relationship with social media, nor does it necessarily mean abandoning social media entirely.
Having a more intentional relationship with social media is about having control of our relationship with social media, rather than social media having control of us. I know what it like to be controlled by social media because I have been controlled by social media before. And I know plenty of people who are still controlled by social media.
We can own our relationship with these apps we love so much. We can drive the bus. We don’t have to let social media happen to us. We can wrest control of this relationship, even if we don’t manage it perfectly.
But we have to actually try. We have to be intentional. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable.