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how to maintain a healthy relationship with the internet
illustration by Ash Ronning.

how to maintain a healthy relationship with the internet

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A few tips for taking care of your mental health in a digital world.

Digital technology is impressive, sure, but it’s also kind of annoying. Underneath its glossy casing is a world of forgetting passwords, doomscrolling through breaking news and algorithms that embellish how much fun everyone is actually having. So, you’d think we’d know better than to spend around 15 per cent of our waking lives on social media, often popping on and off more than 20 times a day.

Granted, it’s not all bad. The internet allows us to connect with family and friends all over the world. It helps us maintain valuable relationships when, say, a global pandemic closes international borders and the world’s postal network grinds to a halt. It’s like time-travelling from the comfort of your bed, or couch, or sometimes the loo. It means we can work remotely, take a virtual cooking class or study online – not to mention have disastrous first dates across screens.

But boffins are curious how all this online activity is impacting our mental health. Understanding the long-term effects of our digital habits is a work in progress, but  research carried out by psychologists at Leeds University in 2010 found strong links between heavy internet use and depressive symptoms. Even social media platforms themselves are starting to recognise these connections: in 2019, Instagram hid the number of ‘likes’ below each post in an effort to improve the emotional and mental wellbeing of its users. Luckily, there are ways to take matters into our own hands, too – small things we can do to care for our brains in a digital world.

SET SOME SOCIAL MEDIA BOUNDARIES Social media is the first port of call for 58 per cent of Australians when we turn our phones on in the morning. (That’s assuming they were ever switched off at all.) What starts as an innocent Twitter check can soon result in a full-on feeling of Facebook-induced FOMO. Before our eyelids have properly peeled back from our eyeballs, a damaging emotional cycle has begun that can last all day. So, it’s important to set some limits on the time you spend trawling social media. Break your scrolling sessions into shifts (after all, no one wants to start a shift before 9am). Allow yourself up to 15 minutes on socials at a time, and cap that at 90 minutes each day. Putting boundaries in place and breaking old habits won’t be easy, so just do your best and be kind to yourself. 

DITCH THE DOOMSCROLLING Hours of our lives are taken up by endless scrolling through heavy news stories, which can trigger the release of stress hormones, lead to catastrophising and a negative worldview, and generally have a detrimental effect on both our mental and physical health. Over time, even funny cat videos can fail to lift us up! To prevent injury to your index finger (and grey matter), set yourself an intentional reason for being online. It could be a small thing like checking in with a mate, finding a delicious recipe or gathering inspiration for your fifth bathroom reno. But the moment you stop enjoying Pinterest and start stalking your sister’s new girlfriend’s brother-in-law or deep-diving into a foreign crisis, it’s time to log off.

UNFOLLOW AND UNSUBSCRIBE You know that one person whose Facebook posts irritate the hell out of you? Or the Instagram frenemy who makes you feel crap about yourself? Whoever’s name just sprang to mind: unfollow them. That includes strange ol’ Auntie Susan, and the school friend you haven’t spoken to in 17 years. This isn’t brutal culling for no reason: research shows that even a small amount of negative brain activity can lead to a weakened immune system. Not only that, but Dr Travis Bradberry (a renowned expert in emotional intelligence) found that negative attitudes can affect your smarts and ability to think. So, next time something (or someone) irritating makes you feel a bit fuzzy-headed, know that you’re not just being dramatic, and you should probably unsubscribe, stat. 

REMEMBER IT’S NOTHING PERSONAL On the other hand, you may find yourself on the receiving end of an unfollow – sometimes for reasons unknown. Don’t waste energy dwelling on what you may or may not have said, or what you could have done differently. Being caught up in someone’s digital cull can be a real timesaver, actually. And as much as you hope your daily pet snaps are brightening everyone’s day, they might not be your old housemate’s cup of tea. Which is OK! It’s impossible to know what’s going on in someone else’s life, and their choice to unfollow you is not a reflection on you (or your pets).

TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS, QUICKSTICKS In a world where Facebook pokes are no longer a socially acceptable thing, what kind of joy could we possibly hope to gain from push notifications? The fact is, a sudden ping sends our brains into overdrive, triggering anxiety and hypervigilance – basically, it shuts off the logical prefrontal cortex and sends emergency signals to the body that a predator may be about to attack. So, pop open your phone settings and swipe off all notifications that aren’t essential (which, to be honest, is probably most of them). If you don’t want to go cold turkey, begin with the platforms you waste the most time scrolling through. Then work backwards and enjoy a rare glimpse of your phone’s wallpaper. It’s been a while. 

WHIP YOUR EMAILS INTO SHAPE Now it’s on to tackling that overflowing inbox. It can feel damn personal to unsubscribe from brand emails – even the ones you definitely don’t remember signing up to. There you are, hovering over the unsubscribe button, wondering whether the CEO on the other end will hate you forever. But here’s the thing: they won’t. And it’s super cathartic to part ways with all those newsletters you’ll never read, about yet another bed linen sale or holidays you can’t go on. Once you’ve chipped away at your clogged-up inbox, set aside 20 or so minutes each day to read and respond to new mail. It’ll keep your admin from getting overwhelming and mean you never miss updates on things you actually care about. (Which may include new bedding. No judgment.)

REDUCE PRE-BED SCREEN TIME There’s been a ton of research into the impact of using devices before bedtime. Not only is your phone’s blue light harmful to your eyes, but being on a device before you tuck yourself in will also leave you feeling too alert to sleep and, as a consequence, struggling to stay awake the next day. That said, a blanket ban on technology in the bedroom isn’t necessarily required. If leaving your device in another room isn’t an option (phone alarm users, we see you), at least pop it out of reach of your bed so you’re not tempted to go for a ‘quick’ scroll into the wee hours. It’s also helpful to place it screen-down so your cosy sleep space isn’t lit up by random late-night phone action. 

EMBRACE OFFLINE MOMENTS Now for the real test: ditching all technology for an hour each day. It may not sound like much, but even a little screen-free time will go a long way. Remember journals and the joy of penning plans on a wall calendar? Or making a collage from old books while listening to an album all the way through? Go on, turn your attention to that half-finished novel, dust off an op-shop sewing pattern or get crafty with your hands. However you spend your time – even if it’s practising some breathing techniques or going for a neighbourhood flower-spotting stroll – it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s simply an excuse to slow down, catch your breath and give your noggin time to recharge. How do you know if it’s working? Well, you probably won’t feel the need to post about it online.

These helpful pointers come straight from the pages of frankie feel-good, a one-off issue dedicated to mental health. Head here to find your closest stockist or pick up a copy from our online store.