Is Your Digital Diet Harming Your Mental Health?

May 10, 2021

computer with coffee and pencil

While we’re quick to praise healthy eaters, there’s something to be said for those who consume a balanced and healthy digital diet as well—following accounts that matter most to them and knowing how to put the phone away. 

Digital technology, like all things, is a tool that can be used or abused. It keeps us connected, it navigates us on the road, and it helps us access nearly every and any random fact we could possibly imagine. Still, approximately two-thirds of Americans associate technology with illiteracy, interpersonal isolation, distraction, and laziness. And with technology addiction at an all time high, your digital diet might be harming your mental health more than you realize. 

Wondering how to consume cleaner digital media? Start by following these steps:

1. Practice Conscious Consumption on Social Media 

edited versus unedited photo of girl in a beanie

U.S. citizens spend, on average, two hours on social media every day. That amounts to one twelfth of your day staring at the best moments of other people’s lives—all the vacation pics, couple photos, and airbrushed photo shoots that they chose to share online. 

Though the reality of those lives are very different, reports such as Tiggemann and Anderberg’s study on ‘Instagram vs Reality’ suggest that exposure to unrealistic images on social media leads to heightened body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem. 

To combat negative mental health effects, a state of mindfulness can help alleviate fear of missing out and deepen your understanding of what’s behind the photo or text. Whether that mindful state is achieved through several deep breaths, meditation, or prayer, entering into the social media sphere with a clear brain gives space to recognize that social media is not an accurate depiction of the person behind the screen.

2. Declutter Your Digital Sphere

email app trash

If your phone has over 3,000 unread emails, hundreds of notifications, and old to-do lists filling up your phone storage, it’s time for a digital declutter day. 

A digital declutter day gives you the space and time to go through the notifications or messages you’ve been avoiding and clear up both your digital and mental space. I typically schedule a digital declutter day every six months, taking a few hours to get my inbox down to zero, unsubscribe from irrelevant email lists, respond to messages I’ve been avoiding, and consolidate notes and documents that would otherwise be disjointed. 

After a digital decluttered day, I typically find myself more relaxed and less overwhelmed, with the ability to focus more on the new messages rather than worrying about the old. 

3. Turn Off Notifications

notification center on iPhoneAccording to a study by Synapse, the creator of a notification management app called Daywise, the typical smartphone user receives as many as 73 notifications a day. Break that into 16 waking hours and that results in about 4.5 interruptions an hour, or a notification almost every 15 minutes. 

What began as a way to notify users about important information has become a distractor and a way to divert attention from life and the world around us. 

In order to take back that life and protect my mental health, I make it a priority to turn off notifications for any app that does not require immediate attention. Besides messaging apps, I keep all other app notifications off at all times, figuring any urgent news could and would be addressed over text rather than over social media or email.

4. Fill Your Feed Wisely

screenshot of sustainable living hashtag

If you find yourself doomscrolling on social media or have a list of influencers / former friends that you follow even though you find them annoying, you’re not alone.

According to psychotherapist Sally Baker, hate following—the action of following someone for the explicit act of judgment or amusement—is a fairly common social media behavior. It can  stem from jealousy or insecurity, and, when left unchecked, may lead to negative thoughts and judgements. 

To focus on accounts and people who bring me joy rather than jealousy, I perform a regular audit of the accounts I follow to ensure that they make me feel better, happier, more educated, and/or more compassionate. If an account makes me feel resentful, jealous or depressed, I either unfollow or mute them depending on my connection with the account owner. 

In Iceland, the act of curating a happier and healthier feed is known as joyscrolling. Starting with Joyscroll.com—a website featuring images of waterfalls, scenic landscapes, and the northern lights—joyscrolling has grown into a mindset of choosing who you follow wisely, and deciding  to fill up your soul rather than amplify negative thoughts. 

5. Limit Screen Time

Netflix TV show on laptop

Although it may seem overstated, the simple act of limiting screen time is quite possibly the most effective tool for creating a more intentional and healthy digital space. By cutting down on the mindless scrolling, you allow yourself to decide when and how often you choose to go on your phone. 

As a perpetual goal-setter, I made it my goal to drop social media for a month and watched my phone time plummet. While there are necessary and helpful uses for your phone, it’s important to realize when a tool becomes an addiction.  

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Like food and healthy living, your digital diet is all about balance, boundaries, and moderation. 

By limiting your screen time, setting healthy boundaries with who you follow, and balancing life and technology, you can learn to see technology and social media for what it is—a tool that is neither good nor bad, and can be used in healthy ways. By taking the time to make sure your digital diet is clean and healthy, you can protect your mental health and the mental health of those around you. 

Though it may seem countercultural, try turning off those notifications and cleaning up your photos and see what a difference a digital diet can do for you.

Also by Dana: After A Year Of At-Home Workouts, These Vintage Jazzercise Videos Are Giving Me Life

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Photo: Dana Drosdick

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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