I’m embarrassed to admit that my daily routine is completely soiled with the internet. I check my email and scroll through Instagram before getting out of bed. I scroll through Instagram while walking from my car to my desk. I spend the workday glued to my computer, perusing the news, researching articles, exploring Reddit and periodically checking Facebook. When I have to use the bathroom, I scroll through Instagram as I walk from my desk to the toilet — on the way there and on the way back. When I leave work, I scroll through Instagram as I walk from my desk to my car. When I get home, I put on Pandora while I walk the dog and cook dinner, and finally, I sink into bed to watch some combination of random shows or videos on Netflix and YouTube — occasionally thumbing through Instagram while watching — until I inevitably fall asleep.
From there, I rinse and repeat.
What can I say? I’m a millennial dirtbag.
Of course, I know that spending every waking moment on the internet is bad for my brain: Several studies have linked spending too much time online — especially on social media — with feelings of depression, loneliness and low self-esteem, all of which are feelings that I feel often. The reason for this association, according to these studies, is some combination of social comparison (when users compare their own lives to the picture-perfect lives of others on social media), and the fact that spending more time online means less (happy) time with friends and family in real life.
But the worst thing about how I use the internet is that I mostly do so passively, meaning I simply scroll through social media, news feeds, and my personal favorite, YouTube wormholes, without any real purpose. I’m essentially bombarding myself with loads of (mostly depressing) information that I never once asked for.
Scientific research shows that passively browsing the internet like this — which many of us do about 50 percent more often than actively searching the internet for something specific — is absolutely terrible for our mental health. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that university students asked to consume random pieces of content on Facebook for just 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than those asked to post or chat with friends on the same platform. Another more recent study performed by researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that passively using any social media platform can decrease feelings of wellbeing, sense of belonging and overall life satisfaction.
Another, more mundane reason it screws with your mood, according to some researchers, is because you end up consuming mostly boring information (or at least, information that you didn’t care about, because again, you didn’t actively search for it) that leaves you feeling like you just wasted your time. Addiction researcher Stanton Peele tells me that people who passively peruse the internet often may do so as a form of escapism, but that this only makes things worse. “When people turn to something for negative reasons — to allay anxiety, loneliness and depression — then it will only exacerbate them,” he explains. “But if they’re able to harness that thing [the internet, in this case] in a positive direction, it won’t be addictive or depression-inducing.”
That’s the good news: There are a few simple things you can do to improve your overall experience on social media, even if you have trouble avoiding it altogether:
- Unfollow Random Accounts: If you don’t care about it, unfollow it. This will prevent random/boring/depressing stuff from popping into your feed, which will obviously improve your overall well-being.
- Follow Positive Accounts: Dogs make me happy, so I follow @dog on Instagram. That way, if I’m going to see anything that I wasn’t actively searching for, it’ll at least be something that doesn’t piss me off.
- Post, Like and Comment Often: Remember: This is social media, and actually engaging with people online will make you feel much more involved and fulfilled than simply lurking in the deep, dark and lonely depths of the internet. Until you get into a flamewar with a D-list celebrity on Twitter, anyway.
Of course, simply cutting down on your internet time is far and away the most obvious option, but yeah, let’s not kid ourselves.