Health and Wellness

I've been hooked on social media for 15 years: How I'm finally breaking the habit

The author scrolling on social media during a break at work.
Rebecca Picciotto | CNBC Make It

When I used a fake birthday to create a Facebook account at age 9, I didn't know I'd eventually become dependent on social media.

In the 15 years since, I've immersed myself in social media almost every single day — surfing through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, and starting over again the next day.

In college, I averaged 14 hours of screen time per day. A lot of people live this way: 31% of U.S. adults, more than 80 million people, are online "almost constantly," says a 2021 survey from Pew Research Center.

The Gen Zers in that age range, including me, feel the adverse effects of tech overexposure the most because we've been immersed in social media since childhood, says Raquel Martin, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Tennessee State University.

The consequences are real, Martin tells CNBC Make It. "It throws off your body's natural rhythm, makes it even more difficult to sleep and can increase [the tendency for] social comparison."

I experienced some of that myself, starting in 2020: For about two years, I was sleep deprived, self-critical and depressed. So in January, I decided to make a change.

I started small, trying to limit my social media consumption just in the mornings. My mind and body are already thanking me. Here's what's working for me so far.

I'm setting goals that are 'realistic' and 'specific'

Limiting your social media use only works if you're consistent about it. The key — at least, for me — is keeping yourself busy.

Since January, instead of spending an hour or two scrolling before getting ready for work, I exercise, meditate, write in my journal, clean or read a book. I make a point of putting social media away about an hour before I go to sleep, and monitoring my phone's screen time analytics to hold myself accountable.

These changes may seem miniscule, but they're helping me make progress. At the beginning of 2023, I averaged about nine hours of social media per day. Two months later, I was down to seven.

That's because the changes are both realistic and specific, Martin says.

"If we're not being realistic, we can set ourselves up for failure. You have to be more specific. 'Oh, I want to decrease my phone use' is too abstract of a goal," she says. "You need to know how much you're using it to know how much you want to decrease it and set realistic expectations."

I'm setting time-limits on apps, especially on weekends

Staying on track is harder during the weekends. Without needing to leave for work, I'm more inclined to scroll the day away.

To combat this, I use my iPhone's app limit feature to set time limits for my applications. Once I reach my limit, the app automatically locks until the next day.

I currently have three-hour time limits for Twitter and TikTok, where I find myself indulging the most. I allot a total of 90 minutes per day for Instagram and YouTube, where I usually spend less time. I'm down to seven and a half hours on social media per day on weekends, almost half of my original 14.

I'm understanding that I'll slip up sometimes

Sometimes, my muscle memory gets the best of me: I catch myself scrolling before bed or I turn off my time limits. Many other Gen Zers do the same thing, says Martin. Sticking to strict limits can be hard, especially for people who've spent their entire lives in the digital age.

Giving yourself the grace to fail is one of the first steps to making progress, Martin says.

"[Gen Zers] have a higher propensity to use social media, because you've had it your whole life," she says. "It's understandable that because of that access, you have difficulty managing outside of that — and that your threshold can get a little bit excessive."

My results so far: Better mood, better health

Lessening your social media use can significantly decrease your anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems and fear of missing out, according to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study.

Personally, my depressive symptoms are already noticeably lower. I'm more self-confident and I feel less of an urge to compare myself to others on the internet.

I've also lost 12 pounds since January by replacing some of my social media time with being active and making healthy meals.

That's not necessarily everyone's goal — but in my case, I gained more than 40 pounds in 18 months during the Covid-19 pandemic's peak by being inactive and eating fast food. At the time, my doctor advised me to make healthier choices. Completely disinterested, I barely looked up from my phone.

Now, less time on apps means more time for my health, both physical and mental.

"You get the chance to actually engage with the world a little bit better [when you limit social media use]. You get the chance to spend your energy in other places," says Martin. "Think about how much time it's going to add to your day to do other things."

My next goal: Only 30 minutes a day on social media

I still have a long way to go. Limiting your social media time to "approximately 30 minutes per day" optimizes your mental health benefits, the University of Pennsylvania study found.

My goal: Trim my daily usage by 20 minutes each month until I hit that benchmark. I've been thinking about buying a wall calendar and using color-coded markers to keep myself on track. It'll be a visual reminder of my progress and pitfalls.

If I'm successful, I'll reach my goal in a little under two years. And if I regress at any point — I'm sure the journey will have ebbs and flows — I'll give myself grace as I work on becoming a better me.

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