As I type this, there are three screens open in front of me: my laptop screen, an external monitor and my phone.
On them I can see . . .
- my work email
- my office's internal messaging app
- the ABC News site, which I forgot to shut before I started this
- my text messages
- notifications from Twitter and Instagram
- a reminder to take my medication
- this blog post, which has been open for an hour and I've only written up to here.
The online world can be so much. It's useful, frustrating, rich, clever, silly and so magnetic – I've just stopped writing this to tweet about writing this. It's populated by supportive new friends, the worst trolls, people you knew in high school, your second cousins, movie stars and everyone in between.
So if, like me, you're prone to becoming overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or otherwise negatively affected by such a big, intense experience, it's really important to manage your online world in order to keep it positive and enriching for your mental health.
How that works will be different for everyone. I can't say how you should manage your online experience, but I can tell you how I manage mine. Here are five ways I curate my online world to suit my mental health needs.
I'm going to concentrate on social media and news, as that's where I spend a lot of my time and it's what I find needs the most managing.
Limit social networks
There are a lot of online social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn and many more. I have accounts on many of them, but I decided early on to only be active on two – any more and I get overwhelmed.
That's a personal choice, of course. There's a trade-off between having a rich, fun experience on all the sites available and feeling overwhelmed by constant connection.
Social media is optional, and you don't need to be on social media to remain connected to your friends and family. The most important thing is that you're safe and are getting what you need from your networks.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is one of the big anxieties that can be amplified by social media. No matter how many people you follow or conversations you take part in, there's always one more you miss.
FOMO is a normal, understandable response to being in such a huge social environment. There's no easy solution, but it helps to reframe your thinking so you don't picture yourself on the outside. For example, I deal with FOMO by reminding myself of two things:
- The carefully crafted image that people present on social media is often nothing like their real life. Comparing the unglamorous parts of my life with someone else's highlight reel is unfair on me.
- All those people on social media are missing out on 95% of my life. The poor suckers.
Mute, unfollow, block, lock
On social media, you inevitably see and read about a lot more than you asked for. People go on rants, arguments occur and sensitive subjects come up, often unannounced or without content warnings. Or maybe you just don't want to hear about that sports game or politician any more.
I have a whole list of people, words and hashtags than I mute in Twitter. There's a genuine joy in muting a topic and watching it magically disappear from my timeline.
I've also muted, unfollowed, unfriended and blocked other users. I used to be worried that they would be offended, but when it's my mental health on the line, I don't hesitate.
All the major social media platforms have some form of controls you can use to alter what and who you see. Use them. You don't have to read anything that makes you feel worse.
You can also make your account locked or less visible on most social networks, so fewer people have access to your posts. You can switch between locked and unlocked as often as you please – it can be comforting to lock my account if I need to feel secure, then unlock it later.
Social networks can be like the best café in the world – fun and supportive, but too much time spent there can be exhausting.
I clock off from social media well before bedtime, because sleep is precious and doesn't mix with phones. While I sleep, my phone is elsewhere, so I can't be tempted to pick it up in the night.
I also get off social media I'm feeling very anxious or depressed, so I can feel safe and am unlikely to publish anything I'll regret later.
I regularly take longer breaks from social media, too. A few days, a week, occasionally a month. It's refreshing and keeps my focus on real-world stuff. When I do, I leave a status update letting my friends know what I'm doing – disappearing from social media without explaining can worry friends.
Control what you see
Social media timelines scroll off into infinity. News pages update every ten seconds. Notifications flood your phone. There can be too much information coming from too many places, and that can be exhausting and stressful.
But there are ways to take control. RSS reader apps can gather together all the headlines from your favourite sites in one place, so you can read the stories that interest you and clear the rest.
You can also take control of the notifications you get. A single control on your phone can turn them all off, or you can go deeper into your settings and turn off one or more apps' notifications.
Most social networks have notification settings of their own, so you can decide which events prompt a notification and which don't. A little digging in the settings can reduce the flood of dings and buzzes on your phone screen.
How do you manage your online world? Add your thoughts to the discussion on Facebook.