The use of social networks and their impact on mental health has been widely discussed in recent years. In this article, we will explore the use of social networks, their relationship to psychological well-being, and discuss strategies to engage in a more conscious and satisfying use of them.

Social media has become an integral part of our daily routine. Just yesterday, I was talking to a family member who, before visiting a city, had discovered various places and activities through TikTok videos. Social networks are not merely for «socializing»; they serve as a primary source of entertainment, resources, ideas, and information, showcasing the «best side» of the lives of those around us. Nowadays, it seems that if you don’t have social media, you are either a hermit or an alien.

The scientific literature has seen extensive discussion on whether the use of social media has positive or negative effects, its potential for addiction, and the media often portrays it in a sensational and alarming manner. The reality is that, as is often the case, scientific evidence does not provide absolute conclusions on the matter. To assess whether social media truly has negative effects, an in-depth study of each individual case is necessary. However, we can observe some general trends that can guide us in making a more conscious use of these platforms.

Your attention is the currency

Today, it’s no longer a secret: social networks thrive on the attention you give them. That’s why they are meticulously designed to:

  • Prompt you to open the application as frequently as possible.
  • Keep you engaged with the screen for as long as possible.
  • Encourage interactions with other users/content to attract more people to the platform.

The goal is to gather extensive information about you to construct a profile, including your political orientation, preferences, hobbies, age, gender, and interests. This allows social networks to deliver «tailored» content and advertising. The content and ads you see will be finely tuned to you, presenting significant value to advertisers looking to promote on these platforms. The more you engage with social networks, the more insights they gain about you, and the longer you use them, the more advertisements you’re likely to encounter.

This implies that all these social networks, typically considered «free» for users, have perfected every conceivable technique to be exceptionally appealing. From the color palette and icon design to the notification sounds and the «gestures» and buttons during usage, every minute detail of the user experience and interface is meticulously crafted to captivate and retain your attention.

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The two faces of social media:

Given these characteristics and the increasing use across all age groups, it is not surprising that there is a growing concern about social networks, especially in adolescence. The reality is much more nuanced than the typical portrayals in the media: they are neither inherently evil nor an unequivocal marvel of socialization.

The scientific literature on the subject often presents contradictory conclusions, emphasizing that the relationship between social network use and mental health is, in fact, complex and multifaceted, involving several contributing factors. Some aspects associated with excessive use of social networks that can impact mental health include:

  • Anxiety and depressive conditions
  • Addictive behaviors (excessive dependence on devices and significant discomfort in their absence)
  • "Fear of missing out" (anxiety about missing social events or experiences that others are having) Social isolation
  • "Phubbing" (an Anglo-Saxon concept referring to ignoring a person by paying attention to the cell phone).
  • Body dissatisfaction

However, other studies highlight the positive aspects of social networking, including:

  • A sense of belonging and social connection
  • Access to communities with shared interests
  • Access to support networks
  • Simple and quick communication that can enhance relationships with friends and family members
  • A source of resources, information, and advice
  • Maintaining social relationships over distances
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These represent just a few of the dual aspects of social networking. It is common in the media and even in everyday conversations to attempt to simplify a complex reality, presenting a «caricature» of what social networks are in one sense or another. Yet, as is typical in psychology, it all depends. It depends on the manner in which networks are used, the purpose they serve, the discomfort they may generate, and the interference they cause in various aspects of an individual’s life, among a multitude of other variables.

But on one thing, we can agree: owing to the way they are designed and the strong social component of these networks, many people aspire to make a more conscious use of these applications and reduce the time spent on them. In fact, numerous individuals seek consultation with complaints about their attention, lack of ability to concentrate, and «dependence» on certain social networks. Let’s explore some strategies to attempt to achieve this.

Social Networks: Achieving Conscious and Satisfactory Use

Ideally, we should aim to retain as many positive aspects as possible while minimizing the negative impact that social networks can have on us. Many people strive for this balance, often relying excessively on sheer «willpower» or motivation. However, it’s crucial to recognize that motivation is something we need to cultivate actively, not something inherently within us. Therefore, let’s construct that «motivation» by shaping our environment, recognizing that we are in competition with applications expertly designed to «hook» us.

How to Modify Your Environment (Physical and Digital) to Reclaim Your Attention:

Setting Digital Boundaries:

  • Establish specific times for checking your emails, social media, and other apps.
  • Disable notifications that are unnecessary or irrelevant to you.
  • Utilize apps or native device features to automatically limit usage time, and consider activating "night mode." If your device offers automatic settings, you won't have to pause and think about it.
  • Explore the "screen time" feature in your device settings. Once you are aware of your app usage, decide what changes you want to make and what you want to retain.

Adopt "Digital Minimalism":

  • Organize your screen to make accessing apps "less obvious and automatic." You can achieve this by creating folders, relocating icons from your main screen, or using monochrome filters (yes, phones can be set to black and white) during times when you aim to limit distractions.
  • Delete or uninstall apps you no longer wish to use (remember, you can always download them later).

Screen-free Spaces:

  • Create designated spaces without screens or devices, such as when you're with friends, studying, or working on a project.
  • Keep your cellphone out of your room while you sleep (consider using an analog clock or alarm).
  • Avoid placing your cellphone on the table or in sight when engaged in conversations with others.
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Educate Your Algorithms:

  • Prioritize content deliberately by giving "likes" to material that interests you, encouraging similar content suggestions.
  • Click "not interested" for content that you dislike or find distracting.
  • Consider creating a new account focused on specific content related to a particular area or topic.

Prioritize "Offline" Activities:

  • Schedule activities or hobbies in advance to avoid making decisions in the moment and potentially getting lost in endless scrolling.
  • Mark these activities in your calendar or note apps, placing them on your main screen for easy access.
  • Identify places and moments associated with mobile or network use to raise awareness and modify those spaces or choose not to bring your mobile device to those locations.

In conclusion, endeavor to reshape your environment, making it slightly more challenging to access what you aim to avoid while fostering behaviors that hold value in your daily life. Relying solely on our «willpower» may not be sufficient to cultivate awareness of our device usage and contend with the myriad distractions vying for our attention. By strategically modifying our surroundings, we empower ourselves to navigate the digital landscape more consciously and regain control over our attention in the face of formidable competitors.

About the author:

Alejandro Sancha is a General Health Psychologist and Clinical Neuropsychologist. He also has a postgraduate degree in child and adolescent psychology. He has experience with various psychological problems (anxiety, mood disorders, stress, ADHD, rehabilitation in acquired brain injury, among others) and works from an evidence-based perspective. His passion for understanding human behavior led him to dedicate himself to the clinic, being very important for him that his clients feel comfortable from the beginning, understanding how their discomfort originates and how it is maintained today, in order to generate the necessary tools that allow them to achieve the greatest possible well-being in their lives.

Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Alejandro Sancha Moreno
Children, adolescents and adults
Languages: English, French and Spanish
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