Illustration by Taman Temirgaliyeva.

Social Media and our Perception of Reality: Ways to Unplug

With an expansion of the social media landscape, the pernicious need for connection has blurred the distinction between reality and fiction. At what point does it get problematic and how can we prevent it?

Feb 27, 2022

Let's be honest, most of us spend more time than we want on social media. It is not unusual to lay down on our bed and watch our phones for "only 5 minutes" after a long day at work or a study session at the library. Hours pass and we realize that we spent them scrolling incessantly through endless cute cat videos on TikTok. It is also not unusual to hang out with your friends only to discover that everybody is actually on their phones. Why do we spend so much time on social media? Is Instagram the new reality? This last question might sound ridiculous for some, but we want you to think about the overuse of social media and how you can develop more healthy habits in your social life.
First, let us establish the problem. How much time on social media is too much? According to Statista, young individuals spend around two hours and 22 minutes on social media daily and check their phones around 96 times a day. This means that every 10 minutes we are somehow interacting with social media. Although we believe social media provides excellent ways to stay in touch with people around us, the overuse of these platforms can cause struggles like stress, body image issues, constant comparisons with others and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).
Apps like Instagram and Tiktok are tailor-made so you never stop scrolling. Their algorithms are tailored to your activity patterns and taste which leads to a release of serotonin in the brain. Since the action of moving your finger through the screen is so simple, the effort-reward balance is unbeatable: minimum effort, high reward. Nevertheless, the more we consume on social media the more sensitive we become to the content we watch. This creates an effect of Plato's cave. We start believing that the pictures and videos we watch are real, when subconsciously we all know they are edited, or only represent one small part of reality. Unfortunately, as with every other source of pleasure, people find it extremely difficult to manage their use of social media. Professor Monideepa Tarafda of Lancaster University writes "While it might seem counter-intuitive, social media users are continuing to use the same platforms that are causing them stress rather than switching off from them, creating a blurring between the stress caused and the compulsive use."
Unfortunately, the problem is not only the time we spend on social media but also the kind of content we see. Watching people sharing the best part of their lives daily creates an inevitable competition to "strive for better," share "the perfect picture," "the perfect story" or "the perfect night with friends." It is completely right to record the happiest moments of your life, but the problem is when our life turns around what can we share with others on social media.
This stress to generate content from the part of the viewer can cause FOMO. When someone tells us a story they narrate what they remember, usually the best parts. Therefore our perspective of the given event is modified by what we were told. Social media causes this effect to be amplified. Although we know about the destructive nature of doom scrolling, which leads to consumption of fake news, we still indulge in it. There are many segments to this answer including psychological and sociological factors. The “slot machine effect” plays a role by keeping us waiting to find the post that suddenly gives us the most dopamine, but we never know when to stop looking. Also our ambition to remain informed during the the global crises of this decade brings us to consume any news. So, we can all agree that we spend too much time on social media, and often we will say it is unavoidable in this exceedingly globalized and interconnected world, that all the time we spend on Instagram goes towards building our network. But as our article stated above it is much more than a conscious decision and more of a compulsion. While it is undeniable that social media is now essential for our education and work, especially during the pandemic when everything is virtual, we must realize that the development of unhealthy habits and overindulgence can still be avoided. We have a couple tips that can help the process of decreasing our screen time that may lead to better mental health, without swearing to social media celibacy.
Out of sight, out of mind — remove the apps from your main screen. By having to work more to access the platform one would think twice before going through the trouble of opening it, leaving access for when there is a pressing need.
Use apps to control apps, ironic as it may sound. But there are some useful apps that can record your time away from your phone and give little rewards for each period to incentivize that desired behavior. These include Forest or Daywise. iPhone owners can even play around in their settings to restrict their data intake and time spent on apps.
Get a hobby, whether it is horseback riding, wine tasting or coin collecting, but certainly something that does not involve screens. Having an enjoyable hobby is likely to improve one’s mood even if done only once a week for an hour.
Think of screen time as a reward. Reverse the process and instead of trying to get off of your phone, work to get back on it. Limit your screen time by allocating certain times to hop on the apps as a treat after some work. Just make sure you are staying within reasonable limits.
Share your bed with anyone but your phone — having the temptation of grabbing your phone while you are comfortably in your bed is dangerous during evenings when you want to get some rest or in the morning when you want to start the day being productive. Just leave it on your smart charger in the kitchen! By doing this, studies have shown that you can improve your sleep and avoid the increased risk for cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, low HDL cholesterol and poor stress regulation.
We acknowledge that it is almost impossible to delete your social media these days. Nevertheless, we believe that we can limit our use to improve our mental health. Little actions, like the ones mentioned above, can make big changes in our lives. Let’s use social media rather than letting social media use us.
Bruno Juarez and Karina Miszori are contributing writers. Email them at
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