As I write this, the world as we know it has changed. I live in one of the largest cities in North America, and it has gone quiet. Businesses are closing their doors, people are staying inside, rush hour has been all but eliminated. We are all working together to practice social distancing to help protect our friends, our family members, our neighbors. We are standing together by staying apart. I believe wholeheartedly in the reasoning behind social distancing, which is why I have been in my apartment for the last five days, save for a trip to the grocery store and a few walks (alone) to get some fresh air. With all that time indoors, it’s hard not to spend time staring at a screen. Whether it’s checking the news, scrolling Instagram, watching YouTube videos or bingeing a new series on Netflix, it can be far too easy to fall into the habit of going from one app to the next, refreshing and refreshing from the moment we wake up until we go to bed.
This is why I encourage you to practice the art of social media distancing as well. I don’t expect anyone to eliminate social media entirely, but I do believe it is crucial for us to take a more conscious approach to how we engage online. When the government made the decision to close schools in an attempt to minimize the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), I began doing more research as it dawned on me that this pandemic was far more serious than I had once thought. This research quickly spiraled into an overwhelming cycle – checking the local news, provincial news, federal news, then checking Twitter and Googling possible symptoms and reading every article I could find before going to Instagram and Facebook to see what my friends and family members had to say about it all, and before I knew it, I found myself starting the whole process over, with no end in sight.
I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to keep this up. If I were to spend the next two weeks or longer in my apartment, I would need to set some boundaries for myself and my social media consumption. I want to stay informed without being overwhelmed. As a person with anxiety, the news and social media can be draining on a good day, let alone when we’re in the midst of a pandemic. However, I have made the conscious decision to only check in with news sources at two points in the day – once in the morning, and once in the afternoon – and only for a limited period of time. This helps me stay up-to-date but prevents me from getting caught up in reading the perspectives of every single person and creating unnecessary concern.
I believe in the power of social distancing, but I also recognize the toll that it can take when we are lacking connection, support and intimacy. When our phones are the only thing connecting us to the people around us, it can be all too easy to spend hours upon hours staring at them. I think it is important to keep in touch with the people in our circle, to check in on our loved ones and to reach out for help when we need it. However, this does not mean we need to be available 24/7. It is perfectly acceptable – if not encouraged – to take a step back, engage in some offline activities, and check in again later. The beauty of technology is that it is always there. There’s no need to worry about messages going missing if you don’t get to them immediately. They will be there waiting for you when you are ready.
There are four main ways in which I choose to practice social media distancing.
Firstly, I have chosen to leave my phone in one spot all day so that whenever I want to use it, I need to physically move and sit at the kitchen counter, essentially treating my cellphone as if it were a landline. It is far too easy to fall into old habits of putting something mindless on the TV for background noise and spending hours hunched over on the couch, scrolling through various apps and refreshing each until it’s time to go to bed and I realize I haven’t accomplished anything all day. This way, when I choose to spend time on my phone, I am making it a conscious decision rather than a mindless habit and I can focus fully on the other parts of my life when I put my phone down.
Secondly, I turn off all notifications on my phone for everything apart from emails and text messages. This way, I know that the people who really need me can always reach me, but I don’t get distracted by a simple message or by someone liking a photo I posted.
Thirdly, I make sure I am following people and pages that make me happy. It is so easy to get caught up in all the scary things that are happening around us, but it’s important to remember that there are just as many (if not more!) good things out there. Sometimes a heartwarming story or a photo of a puppy are all that’s needed to provide a welcome distraction from everything else going on.
Finally, especially throughout this period of social distancing, quarantines and self-isolation, I am making a conscious effort to check in with my friends and family members on a regular basis. By checking in, I don’t just mean sending a quick text or sharing a meme and going about your day. I mean sitting down and having a real, genuine conversation, whether that happens in person (from a safe distance, of course), with a phone call, video chat or text. If I am having a conversation with someone, I try to put everything else aside and really engage with that person. Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook will still be there 20 minutes from now – take a moment to really be present with that person. I think this is how true connections are built and maintained and it’s not always easy, but I always feel closer to a person after spending five minutes having a true conversation than I would if we had spent all day sending each other pictures back and forth without any real thought.
Everyone will have a different approach to social media distancing, and some will want more online engagement than others, and that’s totally fine! The key is to figure out what works for you, determine what your boundaries need to be, and find the balance that keeps you connected but not drained. I know that for me personally when I spend too much time on social media, my mental health suffers. When I spend too much time reading, watching and analyzing the news, my outlook on life tends to be more negative. When I am able to find a balance between being online and offline, being connected and being present, I am calmer, happier, more at peace. In this time more than any other, we all need to look inwards and decide what will be the healthiest choice for us as we move forward in this world of social distancing. For me, taking a more mindful approach to social media is the key to maintaining my happiness and minimizing my anxiety as I practice social distancing.