Social media: Striking a balance for physicians and parents

We live in an always-on, information-overloaded, highlight-reel, echo-chamber world. Medical practices are increasingly relying on mobile applications and social media for communication, service promotion, and education. How can we balance social media and device use—arguably imperative activities for many of us—with the other things in life that matter? And how can we, physicians using these programs both personally and professionally, serve as role models for our families and communities?

I recently prepared and delivered a talk on this subject at a large physician wellness conference. Many people attended, but even more people approached me at random times during the conference to pick my brain, tell me stories, and share their thoughts on living and parenting in this era of social media. Given their interest, I figured a summary of what I learned was in order.

As an anesthesiologist with a side interest in helping people with work-life balance, why did I choose this topic as something to research and speak on? Like many of you, I struggle with my own habits around social media. I’ve been told by my own child to put down my phone when I should be paying attention to her. I also know that, at eight years old, she’ll be asking me for her own phone soon. And I want to be prepared as a parent and a physician in the health and wellness space.

Social media: the good

Let’s face it; social media is an amazing tool! Without social media, I would not have found a wide array of women physician beta readers for my book. I likely wouldn’t have networked so widely with people and organizations where I’ve now given numerous talks and workshops. And I probably wouldn’t know what my distant relatives or college friends were up to today if it wasn’t for social media.

We now have more information at our fingertips on any given day than in the distant past encountered in their lifetimes! We can quickly exchange vital information about health and safety in emergencies, and we can reach a wide audience with our messages.

Social media: the bad

The dark side of social media starts with the fact that constant connectivity online leads to decreased interactions with humans in real life. We are hardwired for face-to-face contact in close communities, but our interactions on social media are commonly superficial. Words without context can be misinterpreted … and then there’s the fact that vitriol, call-out culture, and rants are what get the most attention.

Modern algorithms perpetuate this and have thus changed the nature of our discourse forever. Algorithms are also engineered to get us addicted to the scroll. They call it “keeping eyeballs on” in the industry. Truly, there are departments of engineers sitting in cubicles getting paid six figures to work on these algorithms. They’re that powerful.

Another aspect of social media regarding work-life balance is that it takes our time away from other important activities. We’re in a constant state of distraction, and this affects our productivity at work. Loss of productivity and constant distractions can’t help our abysmal burnout rates. Social media also eats into the time we have for life-enhancing and renewing activities such as rest, sleep, exercise, and spending time with family.

Social media is a tool that, if wielded incorrectly, can easily become a weapon.

Social media: the ugly

The Scarcity Loop is a phenomenon seen in modern society, where three elements are present: opportunity, variable rewards, and quick repeatability. When this triad is present in an atmosphere of overuse, it often leads to addiction. Think of a slot machine: there is an opportunity for monetary gain, a variable payout schedule, and quick repeatability with the pull of a lever or touch of a musical button.

Social media, dating apps, and even hyperpalatable, ultra-processed foods fit this loop. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Technologies like these have evolved faster than our brains have evolved. In our modern world of abundance, there are so many dopamine hits now available to us – including with social media – that our internal production of dopamine gets depleted. What does this look like? It results in a general state of dissatisfaction and “blah,” but at the ends of the spectrum, it can also manifest in depression and anxiety.

Recent, very well-written books that highlight the problems of social media abound. There’s Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, Scarcity Brain by Michael Easter, and The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt – all about the health problems social media is causing our children.

Numerous studies point to links between social media usage and mental health disorders. Some are robust; others are not. Nevertheless, there’s a signal – particularly with kids. Depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm rates have increased significantly since the introduction of the first iPhone. When teens are surveyed about their usage, they admit it causes them mental harm. No technology that has previously been introduced and brought worry with it – TV, video games, internet, etc. – has had a primary user group AGREE that it is a problem!

Coexisting with social media

You may choose not to participate, but social media is endemic. It’s here to stay, and it will cross your life in some way. We need to develop practices that balance social media use with the essential parts of life.

This starts with self-knowledge and reflection. Are you or anyone else in your household having trouble moderating your social media usage? If so, a great way to reset is to undergo a period of abstinence. In fact, Dr. Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation, insists that a period of abstinence is imperative for those showing addictive symptoms in order to minimize relapse. Three to four weeks is ideal, but depending on the severity of your problem, you could also consider a shorter period, such as one week.

During your time off, consider filling the time you were spending on social media with another task you’ve been missing. Don’t feel like you get enough exercise? Prioritize a daily walk. Been wanting to learn how to cook? Take a cooking class or create a new dinner each night by watching a YouTube tutorial. Have you felt like your life has taken a turn toward boring? Take a class to learn a new skill. While you’re taking this time off social media, reflect on how you feel. In the beginning, it will feel BAD. But it will get better.

The more “old school” ways to produce dopamine will help to reset the pain/pleasure balance in your nervous system. Other ideas include getting outside in nature, spending time in a state of awe, practicing your meditation skills, or doing something that’s challenging for you.

The books Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price both include protocols you can follow during your social media abstinence experiment, as well as tips for slowly bringing back only the phone essentials when you’re finished.

Using social media sensibly and sustainably might involve some boundaries. Dr. Lembke calls these “self-binding strategies” and categorizes them into physical, chronological, and categorical. For instance, many families find the use of a lockbox helpful when working to limit time on devices. You might combine the physical boundary of a lock box with a chronological boundary, such as “all phones go into the box for two hours each evening during dinnertime and clean up.” Lastly, an example of a categorical boundary is limiting social media use to only one app.

A word on parenting

Parenting in the age of social media is truly uncharted territory. There is no precedent for the parents navigating this today. The information about social media’s deleterious effects is emerging, and we must pivot with grace as we go along. Remind your children that we’re all working together to find the best practices, and make sure you’re modeling the kind of behavior you’d like to see in them. Experts recommend striking a balance between authoritarian rigidity and a permissive free-for-all when it comes to screen time and social media for teens, and many are recommending against social media for tweens.

Bottom line: Lean out from the social media treadmill

What does this have to do with physician wellness and work-life balance? Any good plan for success – whether it be designing a sustainable work schedule, reaching a long-held goal, improving relationships, or coming up with a plan for how you will use social media – starts with a foundation of self-knowledge. What do you most value? How do you best take care of yourself when you’re stressed? What’s the best way you’ve found to make habits stick?

Figure out your “why” for using social media. Are you hoping to help, inspire, educate, or just connect with like-minded people? If you find yourself deviating from that “why,” make a hard stop and get off.

If you must use social media for business or patient education purposes, avoid the endless treadmill of posting for visibility using an algorithm you have no control over. Very few people are truly going to become famous on social media, and do you want to be “internet famous” anyway?

Whether you’re using social media for fun or for business, remember that your time and attention are your greatest, nonrenewable assets. Experiment with boundaries, fail, try again, and find a way to coexist with social media that works for you.

Dawn Baker is an anesthesiologist and author of Lean Out: A Professional Woman’s Guide to Finding Authentic Work-Life Balance.


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