Stay connected – and reduce burnout – with healthy online habits

Get the most out of your favorite apps with these tips

Young man and woman on cellphones

Since the initial shelter-in-place ordinances went into place across California – and much of the U.S. – in March and April, many people have had to rely on technology for work, school, shopping, and socializing. One analytics provider reported that during the first two weeks in March, when some companies started encouraging their employees to work from home, phone and tablet use increased 34% and 12%, respectively, compared to the same time period a year ago.

Now as the COVID-19 pandemic continues several months later, our reliance on technology to manage our day-to-day lives appears to be the norm for the foreseeable future. Whether it’s playing online crossword puzzles with a friend, video conferencing with teachers so your kids can learn long division, or reading your favorite news apps for updates, technology is allowing us to communicate with faraway family, continue educating our kids, and keep up with work.

Technology is also a great tool to help you stay healthy during this time. Virtual consultation platforms, such as Teladoc, allow people to connect with doctors via phone or video from the safety of their homes, reducing risk of spreading the virus.

However, like almost anything, moderation is key. Without proper boundaries, technology such as social media can sometimes have a negative effect on your mental health. Here are some smart strategies to keep you safely enjoying the positive benefits of staying connected online.

Healthier ways to use social media

Checking social feeds and seeing posts from co-workers, cousins, and college friends can be a great way to stay connected during tough times like these. Commenting on someone’s sunset pic from their backyard, drive-by birthday celebration photo album, or cute video of a Golden Retriever doing difficult tricks can help people feel as if they are with their friends and loved ones in person.

Since it can feel good to socially network, many people want to keep doing it. This is often because social media can lead to a release in dopamine, a motivating chemical in the brain that’s released when eating a delicious meal, having sex, and exercising. It’s also released when having positive social interactions, resulting in feelings of pleasure, which motivates people to repeat the behavior that prompted the release. Think about when you post a photo or status update. You may be craving likes and comments, which can make you feel on edge as you wait for responses to roll in. Then when they do, the dopamine rush returns. This can result in behavior similar to addiction to social media, which can impact mood and real-life interactions with loved ones.

Comparison to others also comes into play. Since feeds are typically flooded with posts commemorating major life milestones like engagements and marriages, beautiful vacation photos, or new job updates, people can fall into the trap of feeling like others are doing better than they are – especially among those who are already prone to feeling unhappy. Research suggests that this may result in feelings of loneliness and depression.

To help curb the negative effects of social media, you might try limiting your social media scroll to just 30 minutes per day. You could also start moderating your feed so you only see posts from people whose content leaves you feeling uplifted. Do you have a friend that constantly links to divisive content? Some platforms, like Facebook, have an unfollow button, so you’re not unfriending them, but simply setting a healthy personal boundary. Setting healthy boundaries can also help reduce risk of lower self-esteem.

Interestingly, studies show that people age 65 and up can benefit from social media. Sites like Facebook and Instagram allow them to keep in touch with kids and grandkids. Using them has been shown to benefit cognitive function and reduce feelings of isolation. However, just like everyone else, older adults need to be aware of too much social media use and absorbing negative news and messaging. Nothing can replace more direct forms of communication, like picking up the phone or having a standing call with friends and family once or twice per week.

Tips for healthy online habits

Of course, like anyone using technology and social media, you’re bound to encounter negative information now and then, no matter how selective you are. In addition to being mindful of what content you consume, practicing positive self-talk can go a long way toward keeping you in a healthy frame of mind while you’re online.

Positive self-talk involves checking in with yourself and changing your thinking if you feel yourself going negative. It’s also associated with helping to manage stress, which is certainly something many people could benefit from during the pandemic. Here are some ways to practice positive self-talk.

When you’re reading the news, playing an online game, or checking social media, take stock of your thoughts and mood. If you find yourself feeling down, anxious, or sad, try switching your focus to something more positive. For example, losing an online game session with a friend? Remind yourself that you’re fortunate to be able to connect with someone who’s far away.

Treat yourself with compassion and understanding. Use positive affirmations and remind yourself what you have to be thankful for. If you feel lonely after seeing a video of your friend and her neighbors working out together, perhaps it could be inspiration to reach out to a neighbor and start your own workout group.

Take a break now and then

While it may be tempting to jump on Instagram when you finally get some downtime, a better idea may be to use apps or websites that promote healthier habits.

Amped up after a long conference call? Ten minutes spent listening to a meditation app may help you get ready to enjoy the evening with your family. Been sitting at your computer all day? Log on to a virtual personal trainer or take an online fitness or dance class, and get your heart pumping for 20 minutes. You may find that you can give yourself a mental health boost using apps like these.

Sometimes when you’ve had your fill of online activity, taking a total break from technology is the best way to preserve your physical and mental health. For example, eye strain or discomfort can occur after two hours of continual screen use. Also the use of light-emitting devices before bedtime can make it harder to fall and stay asleep, so using technology during the daytime only might be the best way to go to maintain healthy sleep hygiene.

Tech neck” can also become an issue for frequent technology users. This is muscle strain from holding your head up while looking down at a mobile phone or device or computer screen. Long periods of stressing your muscles like this can result in neck and shoulder pain, headaches, stiffness, shoulder pain, and soreness.

The good news is that taking a few breaks can alleviate both eye and muscle strain. The American Optometric Association recommends using the 20-20-20 rule (PDF, 5.1 KB), which is taking a 20-second break after every 20 minutes of screen time and looking at something at least 20 feet away.

Social media and other technology can be a valuable way to connect with friends and family, and remain engaged with work and school during this difficult time. It’s also important to set clear boundaries to avoid being bombarded by negative messaging and digital overuse that can impact your self-esteem and physical health. It is possible to use technology in a healthier way with personal mental health support through Teladoc. Talk to a Teladoc doctor or mental health professional by phone or video chat to learn more.

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