Caring for your mental health when the algorithm has other ideas

It’s 7 am. Your alarm just went off. You have a few minutes before you have to get out of bed. What do you do? If you’re like most people, you grab your phone and see what you missed on IG and TikTok while you were asleep. 

10 am. You’re taking a little work break. You check your IG to see if anyone in the group chat replied to the meme you sent. You scroll through some reels. Suddenly, your 10 min break is up and you go back to work. 

12 pm. Lunch break. You open TikTok while your food heats up. You see a text from your sister pop up. You’ll reply once this video is over. Before you know it, you’ve fallen down a TikTok drama rabbit hole and your lunch is over. You never got a chance to reply to your sister. 

2 pm. You have 5 minutes before your next meeting starts. Without thinking about it you open Facebook.  

4 pm. The work day is almost over. You just need to reply to some emails. You take a quick break before doing so. You check your messages and stories on IG. Maybe watch a few reels. 

5 pm. Dinner time. You’re reading someone’s rant on twitter when it’s time to sit down. You can finish reading it. Having your phone at the table for a couple minutes won’t hurt. You don’t realize you start scrolling when you are finished. It is halfway through the meal before you realize you haven’t said much to your family since you sat down. The kids even pulled out their phones and are scrolling and eating.  

8:30 pm. The kids are in bed. You finally have time to yourself. There are lots of things you know you could spend this time doing but you really just want to zone out and not have to think. You open TikTok. An hour and half goes by without you noticing. You go to bed and keep scrolling until you fall asleep.  

Does this day look similar to yours? It looks very similar to a lot of people’s.

The average American spends 2 hours and 24 minutes on social media every day. And that number only increases as you look at younger users (U.S. teens spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media every day). 

2 hours and 24 minutes is a lot of time when you factor in work, taking care of family, connecting with friends in real life, enjoying hobbies, etc. We all know how precious time is.  

We also know that the more we spend time with something or someone, the more we take on their attributes as our own. The same goes for the content we consume: the more we watch a type of content, the more it affects how we see the world, ourselves, and others. 

Enter the algorithm. 

Whether you are aware of how social media algorithms work or not, they are playing a huge role in your online life. And the online life of young people.  

Hi. My name is Al. Al is short for Algorithm. And I'm here to take control of your social media.

“Social media algorithms are designed to serve up content they think a user will like, based on the history of past ranking signals…If the user likes, interacts with, or follows any of these posts or accounts, the algorithm quickly learns to serve up and suggest even more of the same.” (Thank you, Hootsuite

Each social media platform has its own algorithm that functions a little differently but the general idea is: the algorithm is watching and learning from the way you interact with the content in your feed, and who you follow. 

The algorithm also has a motive: to keep you scrolling.

The more content that you see in your feed, the more you interact, which leads to more notifications, comments, and tags, activating the same dopamine pathways involved in reward, motivation and addiction

Additionally, our brains love to doomscroll. The term “doomscroll” was coined in 2020, and it’s no coincidence that COVID-19 was in full swing as doomscrolling became more prevalent. “Doomscrolling” is when you spend a lot of time online consuming negative news or content. It is hard to tear ourselves away from negative news. It seems counterintuitive, but we do this to feel comfort. If we are feeling anxious, depressed, etc., our brains want us to seek out information to confirm that is how we should be feeling, creating a feedback loop. The scrolling ends up being less about finding news, and more about calming our anxiety (and spoiler alert, it actually does the opposite.

How to make your algorithm work for you and your mental health

So, if the algorithm is driving the content we see and the experience we are having on social media, what control do we have over it and the content it feeds us? 

  1. Save your likes and comments for types of content you definitely want to see again. Only interact with content that is educational, uplifting, and creating connection.  
  1. Disable algorithmic feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see posts only in chronological order. 
  1. Unfollowing and muting are your friends. Your social media platforms are an extension of your space, so protect it! Unfollow or mute accounts that do not benefit your mental health and well-being.  
  1. You can also mute keywords or phrases so content that uses them does not show up in your feed. 
  1. Limit the amount of news, politics and diet culture content you have in your feed.  Staying in the know is important, but there is definitely a limit to how helpful consuming that content can be. Avoid doomscrolling.  
  1. Know how to spot misinformation and be “news literate” online. News Literacy Project is a great place to start

Find more tips here. 

May 30, 2024

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