Social media can be toxic at any time of year. Throw in the stressful and hectic nature of the holidays and it’s no wonder platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Twitter can feel particularly annoying. People tend to post the good moments online, which means your feed likely has been a stream of holiday parties, cookie exchanges and enviable vacations.
The constant exposure to other people’s happy moments can take a heavy toll. The more you use social media, the more you may compare yourself to others. And because people typically put their best foot forward online, it’s totally normal to question why others’ lives seem so much better than your own (even if you suspect they’re posting an overly positive version of their goings-on). All the festive posting can also ignite feelings of FOMO and loneliness — particularly for those who already struggle with the holiday season.
If you can relate, it might be time to take a little break from social media. A short cleanse can give you the time and space to heal your self-esteem, improve your well-being and focus on all the wonderful things you’ve got going on in your life.
Here’s why it may be worth taking a social media break over the holidays:
Social media can damage self-esteem and trigger mental health issues.
Social media isn’t all bad. When you use social media to complement (but not replace) face-to-face interactions and view it in small, manageable doses, it can actually improve your well-being and mood. It can increase education, expose people to new perspectives and create affirming environments for marginalized groups, said Saniya Tabani, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. But it’s easy for those positive effects to quickly take a turn for the worse.
Social media inherently causes people to compare themselves to others, who, keep in mind, tend to post the rosiest versions of their lives online. When you repeatedly see posts about all the wonderful things going on in other people’s lives, it can seem like they’re happier and better off than you are. This can trigger feelings of envy, depression and loneliness. It can make you doubt your own value and self-worth. It can even cause you to spend more money on things like clothes and vacations to keep up with the lifestyles you see online, Tabani said.
On top of all that, social media can be addicting. Social media toys with your brain’s reward system — it feels good when you post photos and get likes, which reinforces the need to scroll and post more frequently in pursuit of positive feedback. The result: People are constantly reaching for their phones. Research from 2021 found that people spend about 184 minutes on their phones each day on average.
“Our minds can be, over time and with use of social media, shaped to respond more to instant gratification and dopamine release from instantaneous likes as opposed to the slow and delayed gratification that comes from living out experiences,” Tabani said.
Even though social media activates the brain’s reward system, the effects are far from rewarding. The more you use social media, the worse the mental health effects tend to be, Tabani explained. A study from 2019 found that people who spent two to three hours on social media each day were much more likely to suffer from internalizing disorders like anxiety or depression.
Social media vacations can improve your overall well-being.
While it might seem too daunting to deactivate your social media accounts or erase your online presence, you may want to consider taking a brief break. Research has found that even a short, one-week break from social media can significantly improve well-being. It can boost life satisfaction, help you experience more positive emotions and curb feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.
There are a handful of convincing reasons to take a vacation from your online networks, said Jeffrery Lambert, a psychologist with the Department for Health at the University of Bath who researches the relationship between social media and mental health.
“For some, taking a break might allow more time to do other productive activities,” Lambert said. “For others, it might be that taking a break from social media stops them from comparing themselves with other people.”
Another selling point: Cutting back on social media can potentially help you sleep better at night.
Here’s how to ease into your social media break.
If you don’t feel ready to commit to a one-week break, cut back on how often you use social media. Simply reducing how many minutes you spend on social each day can be really helpful, Tabani suggested.
“Patients often reflect noticing a reduction in anxiety and depression, as well as an increase in confidence, self-efficacy and motivation,” Tabani said.
A report published in 2018 found that people who limited their use of Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to 10 minutes a day or less per platform experienced much lower feelings of loneliness and depression than those who maintained their usual social media habits. For many people, limiting time on social media to 30 minutes a day will give a mood boost, another report suggests.
Breaking habits can be hard, especially if you’ve become somewhat hooked to social media, so you may have to police yourself a bit at first. Have a friend or family member change your passwords for a week, or download an app that will track or restrict how much time you spend on social media.
Deleting the apps from your phone ― so that you’re only able to log in on your computer ― or moving them off your phone’s home screen and silencing notifications can also help you manage the amount of time you spend on social media, Tabani said.
While some people will feel better after a few days away, others may need a longer hiatus to develop a healthier relationship with social media, Lambert said. Take stock of how you’re feeling as you go — if you immediately feel stressed out upon logging back in, there’s no shame in extending your break a little. There are so many things you can’t control during the holiday season — why not give your brain and body a break and cross social media FOMO off the list?