I started 2020 with a bit of digital burnout. 2019 was a trying year for many, myself included. But despite its ups and downs, and the many pseudo-apolocalypictic moments it brought, it did leave me with one thing: Clarity. Clarity on the value of building meaningful relationships. Clarity on the importance of disengaging from being ‘liked’, fitting in, or being accepted. Clarity on the importance of guarding (and reclaiming) my time. Clarity on the fact that most things online are rooted in illusion. Clarity on prioritising my mental and emotional wellbeing in these social media streets – on the need to be even more intentional in practicing digital wellbeing and social self-care. And so, I took a social media break in January 2020, and with it, a long hard look at myself and my digital wellbeing.
This wasn’t my first time taking a social media hiatus, as I like to call it. I took my first break in late 2011 to early 2012 while pursuing my graduate degree, for one simple reason: I had papers to write and social media was a distraction. After almost two months entirely off social media, I came back refreshed and with a better sense of myself and my priorities. The feeling is almost similar to what one might experience after a workout, detox or fast. Since then, I’ve tried to take anywhere between two-weeks to an entire month for a social media hiatus each year. I’ve experimented with going off all platforms (2011–12), going off just one or two, staying active on just one, limiting my social media usage to specific periods in a day, and on my most recent hiatus, experimenting with being a passive social media user (not posting). Each one had varied results, depending on what my goal was and what was going on with me at the time. But the overall takeaway from my social media breaks is that you don’t need social media to exist. Sure, you may be inconvenienced when you want to connect, find or learn about something online, but it kind of forces you to connect offline and in real time.
Impact of Social Media & Technology on Digital Wellbeing
Social media can have positive, neutral and negative effects on an individual — it all boils down to how you choose to engage in the digital space. I’ve long been fascinated by how social media might affect human psychology, socialising, culture and being. And so, while words like “cyberpsychology” didn’t exist at the time, I found myself following research and trends back in 2010 on how we might be affected or changed by digital tools and living a ‘digital life’. As it turns out, we are significantly affected — which means we need to be even more intentional and conscientious about how we use them.
When most people think about digital wellbeing, they think about how much time is being spent online or on one’s smartphone. Well, in 2019, internet users between 16 to 64 years across the world spent about 2 hours and 24 minutes on social media each day, according to the 2020 Global Digital Report by Hootsuite & We Are Social. In Ghana, the average user has 6 social media accounts across various platforms, while Kenyans and Nigerians have 7 on average. That is still less than the global average of 8 social media accounts per internet user and significantly less than digital netizens in the United Arab Emirates who have an average of 10 social media accounts per person. What do people actually do online? A recent study by Google, surveying 9,000 people in six countries, found that people seem to spend more time on digital activities they consider as having a negative impact on their wellbeing – like checking for phone notifications or passively browsing social media – and less time on positive activities like learning, reading news, or video calling friends and family.
At the end of the day, it boils down to what kind of social media user you are. Are you an ‘active social media user’? Someone who uses social media to share, connect, converse? Or are you more of a ‘passive social media user’. Someone who is more likely to scroll, watch, consume — without actually interacting? This article gives more insight into recent research on how social media use might fuel depression, wellbeing, comparison, fear of missing out, anxiety, motivation and so on based on your user type. Whatever your user type, moderation is key.
Tips for Managing Digital Burnout
As one who uses social media a lot, both for work and personally, I have had to develop a few tools to maintain — or try to achieve — some semblance of balance and digital zen over the years. Here are some simple, every day tips for reducing digital burnout, managing your digital wellbeing, and improving you productivity. It’s the same things I recommend to my trainees who struggle to remain productive or feel overwhelmed and stressed by social media.
Keys to Preventing Digital Burnout
- Be clear about why you are on social media. Is it for work, leisure, to socialise, to learn? Write it down, return to it and remind yourself when you go off track.
- Turn off phone, email and app notifications. This is probably the most important thing you can do for some peace of mind. If it is urgent, people will find other ways to reach you — e.g. a phone call or visit. Research shows that notifications set off the ‘reward’ segments of your brain and release dopamine (the happy hormone) into your system, which leaves you wanting more — and setting you on the path to social media addiction. In fact, many apps are built specifically to take advantage of this.
- Linked to point 2, you can plan your social media time or social media breaks into your schedule. So for instance, you may check social media three times a day for 30 minutes each — once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. That way, you can set app limits, schedule downtime (offline time), restrict who can contact you at what time, etc. Basically, you manage your screen time. If you use an iPhone, check the Apple Screen Time Analytics to find out where and how you’re spending most of your digital life. You can also download apps that help you monitor your online activity.
Whats App Hacks
- Specifically for messaging apps like WhatsApp — go to account > privacy. There? Great. Restrict your ‘Last Seen’ to your contacts or nobody and turn off the blue tick (read receipts). You won’t see others’ ‘last seen’ or ‘read’ either — but hey, how’s that for breathing in no pressure or expectation to respond immediately? :)
- Each of us is probably in one or two WhatsApp groups that do the most. Don’t feel bad about muting the group if you need a break — you can always come back when you are ready. Again, if it is urgent, people will reach out directly.
- Use WhatsApp primarily for business? Switch to the WhatsApp business app and set up an automated messaging system — craft a polite business ‘away’ message that lets your contacts know you’ll get back to them. I set this up last year and it’s working great so far — extra points for easy, non-invasive business marketing!
- Ignore the timeline. People always ask me how I keep up with my timeline. The truth is I don’t. I follow about 3,000 people on Twitter and if you know Twitter, you know it is content overload and a recipe for serious digital burnout. Reading every single tweet is impossible. So very early on, I decided that any tweet I am meant to see will find me — more speficially, people who want me to see a tweet will either tag me directly or send me a DM. Problem solved. I also go to specific profiles that I find valuable and use my Twitter lists to organise my audience and follow relevant content. The “In case you missed it” feature on Twitter is gold and also shows tweets you are more likely to be interested in. Overtime, the app learns what content or accounts you prioritise. Scary, I know.
- Team #NoFollowBack. I’ve always been, and probably always will be Team #NoFollowBack on Twitter. Because YOU determine the quality of your social media experience and it all boils down to who you choose to follow (back) ie. allow into your network or agree to receive content from. Refer back to point 1 if you need to.
- Choose not to engage. I did a lot of this last year while dealing with personal attacks, insults and so on from people and trolls who didn’t know how to simply communicate their disagreement. You don’t have to engage. The good news is that the ‘Block’ function is still active, and now you can also mute specific accounts, tweets or conversations — and even hide nasty replies to your tweets!
- Instagram is the motivation mecca of all the apps. Make your time on IG work for you by following accounts that inspire, uplift and encourage you. Can’t think of any? Simply follow the hashtag #Motivation or #Inspiration to get started.
- Although Instagram is one of my favourite apps, the truth is it is one of the biggest culprit apps when it comes to fueling FOMO, social comparison, or digital burnout. If nobody told you, I’m telling you: it is okay to unfollow your favourite Instagram account if you find yourself swimming in feelings of insufficiency, envy, comparison. I have had a few of my IG followers do so, and then tell me in person. I have done so myself. There’s no need to apologise either. You are human, you can’t always be on, or happy, or in an agreeable mode. You shouldn’t have to. Take care of yourself. Prioritise your wellbeing.
- I don’t remember the last time I received an Instagram notification, and guess what: I have not died! Instagram has the highest engagement of all the apps, hence me repeating this. Turn off the notifications for your digital wellbeing and some peace of mind.
- Track your IG activity to see just how much time you are spending oogling over what someone else had for lunch. When you could have been making your own delicious meal. Yes, I am side-eyeing you LOL. On a more serious note, go to the Menu > Your Activity to see your daily average. You can also set a daily reminder to limit your time on IG.
Productivity Hacks for Social Media Professionals & Heavy Users
- Work with social media? Start using social media scheduling apps. There are a whole ton for various platforms. Some of my favorites: Buffer and Later. Let the machines do the work while you rest or spend some quality time offline.
- Why are you posting that? Ask yourself this frequently and you’ll get better at removing yourself from the rat race and social comparison.
- Digital burnout? There are apps for that — the Screen Time feature on iPhone is useful for managing your online presence or use of specific apps like Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp. You can also explore mindfulness and wellbeing apps like Calm for guided meditation or moments of peace throughout the day.
- Do a mental health check-in with yourself. Mental health awareness is gaining traction in Ghana where it has hitherto been a very taboo topic. The good news is the web grants you access to all sorts of resources, including content and insights on managing your mental wellbeing from psychologists like Dr. Carol Mathias-O’Chez. A simple search should pull up some resources.
- Delete that culprit app. Find yourself addicted to one specific app? Delete it or try an alternative. You can always come back if you REALLY need to. It might not be the easiest if you live in a country like Ghana where WhatsApp is essential for communication, but if you really want to be rebellious, ditch WhatsApp and go with an alternative like Telegram instead.
- Take a hike. Literally. But also, when all else fails, do a digital reset with a social media break — for one platform, all of them, whatever works best for you. Take it from someone who has been to the other side numerous times: you are not missing much (although your brain will try to convince you of that).
Bon, that’s a lot, but I hope you find one digital burnout hack in there that works for you. Wishing you a 2020 with digital wellbeing and zen.
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Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.