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How to beat your social media addiction, according to a therapist

Social media use is linked to depression and anxiety -- here's what to do to reduce your risk.

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Try these therapist-approved tips for breaking social media addiction.

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Love it or hate it, social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram have profoundly changed the way we think, communicate and socialize as a society. Instagram is even beginning to change features (by hiding likes, for example) in response to studies linking social media usage to increased rates of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Given that mental health experts, researchers and other pros are voicing concerns on how our social-media obsessed society can more cause harm than we may have guessed, you may be wondering if it's affecting your own mental health. 

Now that more people are talking about the negative effects of using social media too much, it's common to see friends on Instagram announce they're doing a "detox" or taking a break from the apps for a period of time. But is quitting social media (even for a few days) a good idea and can it really help you in the long term?

According to Dr. Logan Jones, psychologist and founder of NYC Therapy + Wellness, it depends. While taking a break from social media can be helpful in some cases, according to Jones, there's a lot more to be said surrounding why you're taking a break in the first place. 

Read more: How to find a therapist online

Keep reading to find out why taking a break from social media is not enough to change your health, and how to make your social media use better for your mental health. 

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In our age of social media, it's easy to get sucked into checking every app.

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Why simply quitting social media isn't enough

First, it's important to keep in mind that social media is literally addictive. Just like a drug, it's designed to trigger reward centers in your brain every time you see a notification on your phone or a like on your latest Instagram post. And this is why the cold-turkey approach sometimes won't cut it (or will be so tough you'll give up). 

"On a deeper level, these social media companies know exactly what they are doing [from] a neurological perspective. What they're doing is called intermittent reinforcement -- it's what casinos do too with slot machines. And it's the same with swiping on Tinder or checking your Instagram. The addiction is the reward pathway, it's a dopamine hit," Jones said.

Instead of totally quitting your social media, Jones recommends taking smaller steps to mitigate your habits. "I think it's a problem when people start too big. Start somewhere, where there's the least resistance," Jones said. Examples of small steps to help break your addiction include turning off notifications, turning off vibrate, and using a feature on your phone that monitors how much time you spend on social apps

Something I've personally found helpful with creating better boundaries around my own social media use is implementing "cut-off" times for my phone. Starting around 9 p.m., I won't check social media and I won't look at it again until after 7:30 or 8 a.m. the next day. While I'm not totally avoiding using it, I feel like this time frame helps me feel much more centered and positive, not reactive and distracted. 

Read more: 11 meditation apps to reduce stress and help you sleep

Consider why you check social media

While checking your phone and social media throughout the day seems normal, it's a habit that we sometimes don't realize may be compensating for something else. According to Jones, people often use social media as a form of escape from an uncomfortable feeling like boredom, loneliness or another negative emotion.

"Addiction is anything you do to escape a feeling that has a life-damaging consequence. So a lot of people will turn to social media to escape a feeling of boredom, loneliness, wasting time -- whatever feeling they want to escape. The life-damaging consequences of social media addiction are that you are not present and as engaged with life," Jones said. To see this IRL, just look around next time you're out at dinner and chances are you'll see a table of people staring at their phones and not talking to each other. 

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It's tempting to open Instagram when you feel lonely, but it can ultimately make you feel worse.

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Besides lack of engagement and presence around family, friends and coworkers, Jones says social media creates feelings of envy, which is also negative for mental health. "People are displaying filtered versions of life, which is not healthy, it's very unrealistic," Jones said. 

Since social media can be a quick or easy fix to avoid negative feelings, you can ask yourself the following questions to evaluate what you could be avoiding and may need to address in another way in your life. 

  • What are you potentially avoiding or using social media to escape from?
  • How is being on social media making you feel? Are you comparing yourself to others or using it to judge others? Does it make you feel inadequate?
  • Do you rely on social media for your self-esteem? If you only feel good about yourself when your posts gets a lot of likes, this could be you.

Use positive reinforcement to build better social media habits

Like Jones suggested, using an app or Apple's Screen Time feature on your phone is a good first step for being more mindful of your social media usage. You may be surprised how much time scrolling Instagram can add up. According to Jones, it can be helpful to evaluate this time and choose something more positive and intentional you'd rather fill your time with (like reading, workout out, or spending time with friends IRL). 

If you decide to fill your former social media time with a new activity, like say reading, it will take a few weeks for the new habit to set in. It's totally normal to sit down to read and feel the urge to check social media for a while. But, it's best to commit to your routine and try not to break it (even if it's just "no social media after 9 p.m.") for at least three to four weeks, according to Jones. 

"From a behavioral point of view, doing something for three weeks or at least 21 days will allow you to form a new habit. You really are rewiring a certain part of your brain when you try it," Jones said. And Jones said it's helpful to add in a positive activity, instead of just telling yourself or others that you're cutting down on social media.

"The best way to reinforce behavior is to do more of it. So instead of saying, 'I'm not going to do social media', you can say 'I'm working on being more present.' So you want to be affirming healthy, positive things that you're doing," Jones said. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.