Instagram and other social media websites are a double-edged sword: They allow us to connect with people we personally know and feel connected to cool people we’d like to know. But it can also be detrimental to our mental health, since they often paint an unrealistic picture of perfection and inadvertently make us think negatively about ourselves. Some studies have even linked social media use to increased depression, negative body image, poor sleeping habits, and high anxiety, according to Judy ‘JJ’ Jackson Winston, MSSA, LISW-S, Esq, a licensed independent social worker and author. If you find that you feel anxious or down the more time you spend scrolling, posting, liking, commenting, or reading comments, it’s a clear signal that you need to shift your Instagram habits—and possibly some Instagram settings—to help keep your mood on a more even keel. Here, a few tips from experts on deep-cleaning your social media usage and outlook.
Limit your Instagram use to 30 minutes a day.
If you haven’t tracked how much time you spend on Instagram every 24 hours—there’s an app for that. Literally! Whether you’re Team iPhone or Team Android, both have a well-being app that records how many minutes (or ahem, hours) you spend on various downloaded apps per day. But the Instagram app has its own built-in timer, too.
Yes, it might seem like it would make you more anxious to know how long you’ve been scrolling, but the first step toward breaking any bad habit is awareness of the habit itself. It could ultimately be beneficial to check your stats to get a baseline idea of your Instagram use. If it’s more than 30 minutes a day, it’s time to cut it down ASAP. The goal should be to stay at half an hour or less and be mindful of what times of the day you’re logging in, says psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. If Instagram has become so addicting to you that you’re missing responsibilities or struggling with sleep, turn this Instagram setting on (or set a time limit on your phone) so it notifies you when you’ve reached your daily limit.
On your profile, find the hamburger icon in the top right corner of the screen. Tap “your activity,” “set daily reminder,” then select the amount of time you prefer.
“Start weaning yourself down and eventually aim to look at it only a couple of times a day if possible,” Thomas says. “Don’t look at Instagram—or any other social media platforms—less than two hours before bedtime, so you can start unwinding properly and be able to sleep better.”
Prune your feed.
One of the dangers of Instagram is the ability to follow models, actors, and influencers who aren’t completely honest about how they manipulate their photos. Someone may appear to have a certain body type, but there’s no way to know if they’re using filters, Photoshop, or other retouching apps to appear that way. These accounts aren’t going away anytime soon, but you can limit your exposure to them. You can simply unfollow them by tapping the three dots at the top of their posts and selecting “unfollow;” or head to their profile, tap the dropdown option where it says “following” and select “unfollow.” If it’s not someone you want to unfollow completely, you can select the “mute” option, which will keep you from seeing their posts and stories in your feed while remaining one of their followers. This might be a good option if you have a friend whose posts are offensive, overwhelming, or otherwise unpleasant—but whom it would feel rude to totally block or unfollow.
You can also let Instagram know your preferences based on your IG interactions, explains Drew Ramsey, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “People will disappear from your feed or are recommended based on your viewing behavior,” he says. “Follow folks that lift up your mental health; unfollow those folks that don’t. It’s a great exercise for setting good boundaries.”
Though it may feel trendy to follow the top influencers, remember, just because someone has millions of followers doesn’t mean it’s the right page for you, says Hillary Schoninger, LCSW, a psychotherapist. “We are the experts on what we need and what will allow us to be the most authentic,” she continues. “Marie Kondo your Instagram page, and only follow pages that spark your joy. Just like our closets, our Instagram can also be cleaned up so we feel lighter.”
Turn off push notifications.
It’s tough to limit your interactions on Instagram if you’re constantly hearing a “ding” to remind you that someone sent you a message, liked your post, or commented on your previous comment. Rather than being tempted to see each and every movement of your feed, shut off your notifications. Head to your profile, tap the hamburger icon, “settings,” then “notifications.” Change your notification settings to suit your preferences.
This helps to get back some of your control instead of riding the high of getting alerts, which fuels our stress hormones, explains licensed social worker Janette Marsac, LMSW, RDN. “Our bodies and minds cannot sustain this high level constantly without future damage. We begin to associate ‘likes’ with self-worth, tying our value to external validation,” she says. “After you post, turn off the notifications and set a time to check your phone later and with a time cap.”
Control Instagram comments, views, and likes.
Instagram comments aren’t always the healthiest way to express or hear opinions. If you’d rather not see certain comments—or don’t want anyone to comment on your posts at all, you can take back some control. Adjust your settings so Instagram filters out offensive comments on your posts. Go to “settings”, “privacy”, “comments”, then choose the select settings you’d like to enable. Block comments from certain people, ask IG to filter out offensive comments, or manually input which words and phrases you’d like IG to remember to disable.
Don’t want to know what people think of your posts altogether? Choose to disable comments, views counts, and likes on what you post. That way, you can post photos you love simply for the fun of it, without all the digital scrutiny, pressure to get hundreds of likes, or stress over who didn’t like your pic. Before posting a photo, go to “advanced settings” and switch on where it says “Hide Like Counts.” To do so after you post, tap the three dots at the top of your post to switch the “Hide Like Counts” on or off.
Connect in real life.
Instagram is a digital platform, and no matter how many bells and whistles it offers it can’t replace the experience of connecting face-to-face or even speaking on the phone. If being on IG gives you FOMO or makes you feel lonely, find a way to get in touch with a pal the old-fashioned way, suggests Vanessa Kennedy, Ph.D., the director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery. “Real live interaction may fill your need for connection much better than Instagram does.”
Take an Instagram break.
If all of these habit changes aren’t providing any benefit or change to your mental health, perhaps it’s time to let go—at least for a little while. You might be surprised how liberating it feels to have no Instagram whatsoever. Schoninger explains that when we can choose to take a break from something that we’re always dependent on, we can see the situation usually a lot clearer after taking a pause. Even if it’s just for one weekend, you may discover you don’t need this app after all, or at least realize you don’t need to be as dependent on it as you’ve been in the past.