Since many workplaces and schools have gone virtual this summer, our social lives have in large part followed suit. Catching up with friends is no longer as easy as inviting them over for a movie night. As social distancing continues, people are relying more on social media to stay in touch with their network.

Reliance on virtual relationships comes on the heels of major conversations about how social media is shaping our understanding of world events. Meanwhile, piled on top of these conversations are long-standing concerns over the effects of social media on mental health and relationships. To protect ourselves, research indicates we should only use social media to focus on relationships and move offline as often as possible.

Use social media to nurture relationships – not follow strangers

A team of researchers at Monash University and the University of Melbourne in Australia reviewed 70 different academic papers on the mental health effects of social media. They found that social media is connected to both depression and anxiety, as well as positive well-being. The deciding factor seems to be the quality of interactions on these sites – positive interactions result in positive mental health effects, negative interactions in negative effects.

Overall, mental well-being seems to be positively altered when social media is used to maintain connections with real relationships and is negatively impacted when used otherwise. One study, published by Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, found the number of strangers followed on Instagram was connected with negative effects on mental well-being. A different study published in Frontiers of Psychology found that using Facebook to maintain friendships was associated with positive effects on mental health, while only using Facebook to develop new relationships was associated with negative well-being.

Our mental well-being seems to be positively affected when social media is used to maintain connections with real relationships and is negatively impacted when users did not have these relationship networks.

Put the human back in technology

The Center for Humane Technology, a charity dedicated to ensuring technology remains a tool to improve, and not negatively impact, well-being, recently published a guideline for ensuring positive mental health with our increased reliance on technology. Key takeaways from this guideline include being aware of your “Why”. When you log onto social media platform, have a clear goal in mind and then log out when that goal is met. For example, you might log into Facebook to send a message to an aunt you haven’t contacted in a while, but then get distracted by the updates feed. Thirty minutes of passive scrolling later you still haven’t contacted your aunt. Instead, be clear about your objective and then immediately log off – avoid the sinkhole as often as you can.

The Center for Humane Tech also recommends communication methods that preserve the “human” element. Yes, there are a lot of difficult conversations happening in society today and these shouldn’t be avoided. However, rather than firing off that tweet or hitting send on that text, the advice is to get into the habit of picking up the phone and calling the person you want to have the conversation with. The added nuance of tone and emotion, as well as both of you reminding yourselves that you are speaking to a real human, will go a long way to creating a civil, positive result.

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