Turning Toxic Into Healthy: Rules of the Social Media Road (part 1)

“If you’re always trying to be normal, you’ll never know how amazing you can be.”

— Maya Angelou

Can you remember what your life was like, how you used to work, without a phone or without Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

It’s worth remembering that most of these tools and platforms have proliferated only within the last ten years, transforming the ways we work, live and love. Especially as we are at the start of a new year, a new decade, and within two weeks of the start of the next presidential election cycle, it’s worth taking a few minutes to talk stock of how you use social media, its effect on you and how you work and live.

For most of us, it’s increasingly a cause of stress, depression and anxiety in ways we don’t always fully appreciate. From comparing ourselves to others to trying to keep up, from consuming information that’s questionably accurate at best to looking for confirmation of our most outraged reactions, it’s transforming slowly, subtly, how we interact and communicate, and we don’t really have any clear rules of the road. It’s like driving a car without a license.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have drop social media entirely to reclaim your life and ability to communicate with confidence.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on how we can take control over our use of social media, and provide a few guardrails for us to use as we hit the road in 2020. This week I’ll share some thoughts on consuming social media content to make it less stressful and toxic. Next week I’ll share thought on producing social media content.

The first thing to remember about social media in general is that no one is forcing you to use any of these platforms. They are a powerful means for sharing, communicating, connecting, finding inspiration, and learning, as well as intimidating, shaming, bullying — but not the ONLY means.

Social media isn’t, and was never, meant to be a replacement for real connection and real conversations. Interpreting a “like” or a photo as a full, accurate representation of a person’s life is easy to do, but isn’t what friendships and real connections are about.

So how do we — individually, in all parts of our lives — have a better relationship with social media tools in a way that helps us communicate and connect with each other better, rather than be­coming more estranged from each other, and the tools themselves?

It begins from the premise that social media are communication tools — not replace­ments for communication.

Do you use social media as a tool for talking about yourself or for connecting with people, places, or topics?

Is it about presentation or connection?

Do you use social media as a tool for talking about yourself or for connecting with people, places, or topics? Is it about presentation or connection?

Do you interpret people’s reactions or likes to your own content with the same weight as you do an in-person connection or verbal message?

Collectively we have become far more passive in our approach, relying on these tools, swiping, liking, and scrolling without really using them how they are meant to — to enrich and develop meaningful connection in real life.

To understand how to use and consume social media as an effective communication tool, we have to think about it this way: social media amplifies how we already are.

Social media platforms have given a voice to those who might have had one or know how to use their voice before — and in so doing have amplified who we already are — the insecurities, the likes and dislikes, the good and the bad.

Whether you like it or not, most of us consume some form of information and connection thought some form of social media.

What accounts do you follow? Whom do you respect and admire? What excites you on social media? What makes you feel good? What really bothers you, makes you feel insecure, or makes you roll your eyes?

If engaging in a respectful political discussion on Facebook excites you, do it. If it stresses you out, don’t. Similarly, if following pages devoted to hilarious cat videos makes you happy, have at it. But if following tons of LA supermodels or people who do nothing but travel while you’re hard at work amplifies your insecurities, don’t follow or engage with those accounts. It is completely up to you how you use social me­dia, so do it in the way that makes you feel the best.

You do not have to keep up with anyone else’s comfort level; you are only responsible for yours.

Taking stock of your social media consumption might in­clude any of the following:

  • Notice the amount of time you spend on social media. Also take stock of the quality of time spent — whether you’re being active or just passively scrolling. Most phones and even some apps now include tools to help you keep track of time spent scrolling, opening, engaging.
  • Check your tendencies to keep up with the Joneses. It used to be that you had to keep up with the Jones family who lived down the street. Now, there are a million Joneses we have to keep up with. You need to decide whether that’s important to you. (Most of the time, it isn’t and shouldn’t be.) Trying to be “normal,” like the quote from poet, author and activist Maya Angelou at the start of this article suggests, means you miss out on being the most amazing version of yourself.
  • Consider your social media diet like your food diet. Some people really aren’t com­fortable interacting on social media. That is okay. If that is you, own it! If you don’t want to follow certain accounts, or certain people trigger you for whatever reasons, unfollow them. This includes hashtags. You can unfollow or mute without deleting or blocking these accounts. Most tools like Facebook give you these tools. Similarly, most of these platforms will serve up search results for you based on what you’ve seen and liked before — they aren’t random. The more you see things and click on them, the more of those things you’ll see. If you don’t like what the platforms are showing you, don’t click or engage on them, and keep moving.
  • Train your brain. Set parameters around how much time you allow yourself to spend on social media, and maybe even around the profiles and organizations you follow. Consider sources and be intentional with your time.
  • Take a social media break. Take a day or a week away from all social media, and notice what happens. Notice what happens when you’re standing in line at Starbucks and override the tendency to pick up your phone and scroll through Facebook or Tinder. After a day, or a week, what do you notice when you talk to other people? Or when you walk down the street? For most of us, we find we didn’t miss out on nearly as much as we might have feared, our anxiety levels drop, we spend more time engaging with other people in a way that is satisfying, and it helps us focus. Try it.

Next week I’ll share some thoughts on how to consider what you share (or don’t) on social media and how you engage there.

This post is based on content from Honestly Speaking: How the Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love, and Life (Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2019) available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher. www.azureleadership.com/honestlyspeakingbook