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Mental HealthHow to stay safe, secure and sane on social media (a guide)

Social media is everywhere, as Facebook company changes its name to Meta and a second company whistleblower comes forward just weeks after former employee Frances Haugen. She claimed that the company prioritizes profit over public safety and tried to cover up internal research showing that Instagram was damaging the mental health of teenage girls. This is in addition to the first big social media outage, which saw much of the world without access to their...
Devinder BainsNovember 9, 202123 min
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Social media is everywhere, as Facebook company changes its name to Meta and a second company whistleblower comes forward just weeks after former employee Frances Haugen.

She claimed that the company prioritizes profit over public safety and tried to cover up internal research showing that Instagram was damaging the mental health of teenage girls. This is in addition to the first big social media outage, which saw much of the world without access to their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts for over five hours — leaving those of us still on Twitter turning to ‘doomscrolling’ instead.

There are of course those who enjoyed the bliss of the blip, a rest from algorithms eager to sell things you don’t need and showing you the lives of the people most likely to make you feel inferior, a break from the constant group chats on WhatsApp, and messages from work colleagues late into the night. However for most, the withdrawal symptoms confirmed that we can’t live without social media. So, if we are indeed bound to these apps, how can we navigate them — without them ruining us? 

Spend less time on social media

“Experts recommend 30 minutes or less per day as the maximum time we should spend on social media,” says mindset and mental health coach Rahaf Raef Kobeissi, founder of Rays Your Mental Health. “During the pandemic, social media became a trigger for validation, with many people using the platforms to feel better about themselves, and this quite dangerous.”

Rahaf Raef Kobeissi
Image courtesy Rahaf Raef Kobeissi, founder of Rays Your Mental Health

Kobeissi, who is an influencer herself with 11.7K Instagram followers, shares a trend she’s seen with her own clients.

“They go to social media to cope with the negative aspects of their lives rather than constructively learning how to manage their emotions in a healthier way,” she reveals. “This short-term comforting dopamine fix that social media provides distracts people from their negative thoughts, and they become dependent on social media to find relief. But in reality, this dependence is just causing more anxiety and stress and lowering people’s self-esteem and their challenges just become worse.” 

So how to cut down? Much the same as you’d change any other habit: gradually.

“Reduce the time spent on social media by 30 minutes every week, and balance time saved by doing self-care activities — the goal here is to ensure we remain the master of the platform, not the other way around,” she advises. “I personally set usage limits on my phone, I’ve turned off notifications for all the apps, and on some days, I just turn off my data or switch my phone to airplane mode.”

Instagram tells LiveHealthy that it is taking heed of the expert advice and is testing a feature tentatively called ‘take a break’, that would remind users to pause after a certain time period on the app, as well as another that would encourage users to diversify the type of content they’re looking at, encouraging teens to go back to the ‘Explore’ page and search for other topics.

The Facebook outage was no detox

“Social Media is a numbing tool for many people, so when the shutdown happened there was a similar response to drug withdrawal, which is anxiety and fear of having to face their feelings,” explains counseling psychologist Reem Shaheen, founder of BE Psychology Center for Emotional Wellbeing. “Others saw it as a detox from social media, but a digital detox is only as helpful as a physical detox, in that it’s not really that efficient unless the changes are maintained.”

Shaheen is a big advocate for cutting back. “Time spent on social medial is positively correlated with mental illness because it deprives the individual from formulating real, authentic relationships with self and/or others,” she explains. “As humans, we are biologically wired to connect with others hence that continuous state of disconnection has horrible consequences for the brain and mental health status.” 

She has some practical tips: “Start by checking ‘Your Time on Facebook’ in settings to see how long you’re spending on the platform and then manage it by adding a daily limit, the Facebook app will send you an alert when you’ve used your daily allowance,” she explains. “Other apps have similar time limit functions”.

How to manage what you see

“Social media content is just what individuals and companies want people to see, so, it can be damaging to mental health to compare ourselves with accounts that seem to have perfect lives, ‘perfect’ bodies, and perfect careers, when it’s just a highly filtered version of life,” explains Sajda Mughal OBE, digital expert and developer of Web Guardians (TM), a digital safety program designed to protect women and young people from online extremism and hate. “To ensure you don’t see content that triggers unhealthy responses only follow accounts that you know produce content that is good for you, ‘mute’ and ‘unfollow’ anything that doesn’t.”

If you want to go one step further, ‘blocking’ will prevent all interactions between you and the other account, and if you feel strongly affected by the content in a negative way, then click ‘report’ in the drop-down menu on the top right of the post. Meta insists it is working hard to police content, telling LiveHealthy that they “find half of what we remove on Facebook, and 80 percent of it on IG, before anyone reports it.”

How to avoid negative comments

“Engage strong privacy settings,” advises Mughal. “Such as ‘Close Friends’ settings — only letting people whom you approve to follow you, so that your posts aren’t open to the general public. It is possible on most apps, including Facebook and Twitter, to toggle who can view your different posts which means that you can restrict it to only a few select people if you’re aware you’re making a post that may be vulnerable to abuse. Similarly, most apps have a function where you can delete or hide comments on your posts.”

Facebook and Instagram have a new ‘comment warning’ function (currently only available in English) that notifies people when a comment they’re typing may be considered offensive before it’s posted, giving them a chance to rethink their language. There’s also a ‘comment filter’ in settings where you can veto words you don’t want used in comments on your posts. You can also opt for ‘pinned comments’ and pin all the positive comments to the top of your comments thread. Other options on Instagram: you can restrict someone, so comments on your posts from that person will only be visible to them, you won’t see their direct messages and they won’t be able to see when you are active on the platform. Instagram also has a fairly new tool that allows you to bulk-delete 25 comments at once, should you face a deluge of abuse, and has also added new controls that allow you to manage who can tag or mention you.

Be conscious of algorithm manipulation 

“Think about recent conversations, locations and websites you’ve visited and whether there is a connection between any of these and the content or adverts that you see online,” says Mughal. “It is possible to decrease the likelihood of algorithm manipulation by restricting the use of cookies, only allow “necessary cookies” when a site asks you to set your privacy settings, this determines how a site will then use your data. On iPhone, there is also the option to choose whether an app can track your activity across other sites. Not allowing this also decreases the likelihood of such manipulation.”

Another trick to outsmart the algorithm machine is changing the way your home feed is arranged by swapping to ‘most recent’ tweets or posts on both Facebook and Twitter (in drop-down menu on newsfeed pages). As a default, the algorithm will show you posts with the most likes, friends and accounts you most engage with, and ads picked around your ‘interests’, while ‘most recent’ shows posts chronologically, so you see everything. An added bonus to this is a definite reduction in the number of advertisements. You can also remove certain advertisers from your Facebook feed in the ‘settings’ section of the ‘settings & privacy’ functionality.

Take control of your data

Toying with the idea of deleting your Facebook account but worried about losing all those old pictures that live on your feed? Or just thinking it’s time to delete a few of the posts and pictures but you want to keep a copy before you do? It’s actually easier than you think. Head to ‘settings & privacy’ then ‘settings’ and scroll all the way down to the ‘Your Facebook Information’ section and choose ‘Transfer a Copy of Your Information’ and send it to Google Photos, Dropbox, Photobucket or similar platforms, you can also select exactly which information and pictures you want to send (if not all). 

Nicolai Solling, Chief Technology Officer, Help AG
Nicolai Solling, Chief Technology Officer, Help AG

It’s also a good idea to organize the information you have on social media. Facebook has rolled out a ‘Manage Activity’ tool to make it easy for people to archive or trash old posts in bulk, you can now use filters to sort and find what you’re looking for, like posts with specific people or from a specific date range. Meta also introduced ‘Accounts Center’ a year ago to make it easier to manage any posts you’ve shared across two of their platforms. 

Be more security savvy 

There’s more and more talk of accounts being hacked and also information being accessed for fraud, so it’s key to keep your social media accounts secure.

“The personal information many of us share on social media about our whereabouts, interests, personal relationships etcera can be used as ammunition by cybercriminals to personalize their phishing emails and messages and manipulate users into clicking malicious links,” explains Nicolai Solling, chief technology officer at Help AG, the cybersecurity arm of Etisalat Digital. “Users should also be wary of logging into their social media accounts on public Wi-Fi networks, as they may not be secure. Using a strong, unique password and changing it frequently can help increase the security, as can being careful when allowing third-party apps access to social media accounts, and we also recommend installing trusted security software onto laptops, mobile phones and other internet-connected devices to protect the devices from viruses.”

Solling provides some advice if your account is hacked. “Change your password as soon as possible, If you use the compromised password for other accounts, such as your email account, it is also crucial to change those passwords,” he explains. “You should also inform your contacts that your account was hacked so don’t click any malicious links that may be posted or sent by the hacker posing as you.”

Emad Haffar, Head of Technical Experts for Middle East, Turkey and Africa at global cybersecurity experts Kaspersky says enabling two-factor authentication on your accounts is key to having an added layer or protection. The functionality that can be added in the ‘settings’ sections of most platforms.

“You’ll need to both provide a password and prove your identity some other way to gain access, this can be through an authenticator app, SMS or email,” he says. “As passwords become less secure and can be intercepted in attacks, two-factor authentication is a great way to secure your digital identity.” 

He goes on to add: “It’s worth thinking about reducing your digital footprint; we’re so used to posting photos online of what we’ve just listened to, where we’ve been — we don’t always think about where that information is being stored or what it could potentially be used for,” he warns. “That may mean resisting some of the suggestions social media and other sites make, such as tags for people you were with, it might mean turning off location services for some of your social media. Pruning your online presence can be quite helpful in protecting your privacy.”

Devinder Bains

Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.

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