Boundaries with social media

This post is part of the series Boundaries

Other posts in this series:

  1. Boundaries. The guardians of joy.
  2. Boundaries with social media (Current)
  3. Does Fortnite cause ADHD?

Social media, and how to relate to it, is still a relatively new phenomenon. We are still trying to figure it out. But it is influencing mental health. Several studies have shown a clear correlation between depression and excessive social media use.

I have a young woman in my practice who has very intense friendships with two other women. While relationships of this nature are common for the age group, what adds a complicating dimension is WhatsApp.  These young women are in contact all the time; they live in each other’s pockets. In the past, a bit of distance could be naturally maintained by going home. BFF’s nowadays means a constant commentary via smartphone.

WhatsApp is triggering obsessive thinking in some of my more anxious patients. The dating game is already hard. Now add to it the scenario whereby you send someone a WhatsApp. You see that they have read it. They are online – but, not talking to you. At best, some of my patients obsessively check their phones waiting for a reply. At worst, they start getting paranoid about a misplaced step. They worry that they shouldn’t have sent a “that was fun” message, or that the recipient is hooking up with someone else.

I think Freud would have come up with a whole new term for the WhatsApp Freudian slip. How easy is it to send a personal message to a group? It has happened to all of us with varying degrees of consequences. I am reminded of the mum who sent intimate pictures, not to her husband as intended, but to the whole of her daughter’s hockey lifting club.

When the ping of social media starts disturbing our sleep, we should be disturbed. When this happens our constant connectivity is no longer beneficial to us, but harming us.

I have mentioned Whats App specifically in this post. However, a recent survey of 1500 young adults in the UK, has found Instagram to be the worst social media network for mental wellbeing. There is something about this visually based medium which triggers envy, body issues, fear of missing out and other anxieties in vulnerable individuals. Or anybody when they feel fragile.

When I think of boundaries with social media, I try to apply the same boundary rules as I do for the rest of my life.

As with all aspects of life, social media should have boundaries too

The foremost boundary must surely be around safety. At schools, they are teaching kids never to give out personal details like age or address. This is important in online gaming where predators have been known to impersonate a child to gain a player’s confidence. Yet on Facebook, we happily tag our exact locations with the blissful holiday scene of our children frolicking in their cossies. With this realisation I hardly ever post pictures of my kids any more. I have also switched off the location tag on my cellphone photos.

In trying to be aware of my surroundings, I (mostly) won’t be browsing on my phone while walking around out in public. I would rather not make myself an easy target for a would-be mugger! I also try to pay attention to the people I am with, as opposed to the people I am connected to.

As with any boundaries, we have to practise saying no. No to waking up and checking one’s phone first thing. No to checking one’s phone last thing before trying to sleep. No to letting the phone ping through the night. Turning off the “last seen” notification on Whats App so that your anxieties don’t get tripped up. Switching off “push notifications” so that social media is not clambering for our attention all the time.

A few of my patients have gotten to the point where they have had enough. Enough of how anxious social media can make them feel. Enough of how much time it consumes. They got tired of long discussions with acquaintances and never having time for friends. They took the step of going cold turkey on all social media. I Have asked them if they miss it, or feel they are missing out. None of them have any regrets – which does make me wonder how much value social media is adding to our lives and society.

Be that as it may, smartphones and social media are here to stay. For the sake of our mental health, we need to learn how to guard our boundaries around it.

Continue reading this series:


  1. I liked your post on social media boundaries. I recently “dumped”a friend of 15 years or more via WhatsApp. Mercifully she has taken me back, however about 90% of the “problems”between us turned out to be psudo-problems partly created by the medium. When you are in someone’s presence there are scores of little reality checks going on behind the conversation and the silences in between from body language to gaze, to tone and the big one CONTEXT. WhatsApp abstracts from these little but vital checks and only presents the text (plus sometimes an inappropriate “emogi.) Since we hardly saw each other in person because of work commitments it was easy to build up a textual narrative that had none of those little reality checks in place, so naturally the relationship deteriorated to the point that I wanted to end it. I think I am just so lucky to have a friend who has been so faithful as not to have walked away either. However the lesson for me is: do your relationships in person and your messaging on your phone – the two are not interchangeable.

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