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How much time you should actually spend on social media each day

time on social media
Photo credit: artursfoto/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe, but the word “selfie” came into widespread use only a few years ago. Even in the early days of social media, someone who posted successive photos of themselves might have been considered cringeworthy or been thought to have a pretty big ego. In just a few years’ time, the way we express ourselves online has changed dramatically, and the saturation of social media within our culture — and our daily lives — has affected how we connect, how we think of ourselves and who we aspire to be.

No two people use social media in exactly the same way, of course. And just as it can be a lifeline for one person in helping build connections, for another, it may actually get in the way of that.

There’s no magic formula for how much time is too much time to spend scrolling; the more pressing concern is quality versus quantity. But first, it’s true that most of us could benefit from an acknowledgment of how much time we do spend on social media, because the reality check may be shocking. Our social media habits can become so automatic that we start scrolling with very little thought or intention. Use an app or your screentime settings to spend a few days tracking your time online. If it’s more than you expected, set some goals to start understanding more clearly how it’s affecting you, for better and for worse.

The pros of social media

From a relationship standpoint, there is much to love about social media at first glance. It provides a way to stay up-to-date with the lives of those we don’t see in person very often, and it keeps friendships from being erased through geographical distance. It can make us laugh, show us new places and perspectives, and allow like-minded people to find each other and unite around interests and causes when they otherwise couldn’t. It can keep our most prized relationships alive with photos, stories and interaction.

The cons of social media

Unfortunately, social media can also take time we may otherwise have devoted to more creative endeavors or more personalized connections. We all feel so busy. But when you feel like you can’t make time for a one-on-one interaction with a dear friend, but you instead fill that time passively clicking “like” on the photos of those you barely do like, it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t hurt your well-being over time. There is a stark difference between presenting only your edited, curated, filtered self to those who “know” you, versus feeling truly known and understood for who you actually are. And it’s easy to grow jealous and insecure when you compare someone else’s public persona to your private one.

MORE: I tried 6 happiness hacks backed by science

What social media scrolling actually does to your brain

If you’ve ever lost yourself in an hour of scrolling on social media when you intended only to spend five minutes there, then you understand: Reading through your feed over and over again can be self-reinforcing and almost mindless. Your brain’s reward system keeps this going and, in fact, the anticipation of a reward can be as powerful as the reward itself. Which means that just the idea of there being something new and interesting on your feed — or 20 new “likes” on your post — activates the pleasure center in your brain and gives you a boost in your levels of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. So you’ll keep reaching for your phone over and over again. Worse yet, software developers harness this to make devices and apps even more habit-forming.

There’s also some evidence that heavy social media use is associated with a lower attention span — perhaps because your brain gets used to quick hits of information, rather than being able to sit more patiently with one idea at a time. And people who scroll social media on their smartphones before bedtime are likely to have less restful sleep, which may put them at a higher risk for anxiety and depression than those who forgo phones before bed.

Tips for healthy social media habits

To start building better social media habits, you’ve got to figure out what kind of itch you are most using social to scratch. Do you use it to truly connect with people you care about? Or are you all about building your personal brand so that people will admire you? Do you start scrolling when you feel lonely, only to feel worse? Do you do it mindlessly out of boredom? Do you “hate-follow” people you can’t stand just because the negativity helps you hide from dissatisfaction with your own life?

MORE: How binge-watching may be affecting your emotional health

When you’re online, pay close attention to why you’re there — and how it makes you feel afterward. Set some basic boundaries about the time you spend on social media, like putting your phone away an hour before bed or not touching it for the first half-hour of the day. And nudge yourself to be more genuine in who you present to the world. Ultimately, being truly known is what helps our relationships be meaningful — whether they’re online or in person.

Looking for a new hobby to get you off your phone? Check out our macrame tutorial for beginners.

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