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Illustration by Brittany England

Being online hasn’t been a privilege since the mid 2000s. For many, it’s a necessity, an obligation, or even a tool of survival. But if you’ve been around long enough to remember dial-up, then you remember it being more of a playground and less of, as many people like to call Twitter, a hellsite.

Still what site — Google, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok etc. — doesn’t feel like hell now? When our digital life has fundamentally become a stressful extension of our offline lives, it can be feel like we’re never catching a break.

If you thought we spent too much screen time back in 2016 (nearly 11 hours! per day), imagine now: According to a new Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of adults say the internet has become “essential” during the pandemic.

Screen use is reportedly up an additional 50 percent in Europe. But all this increase makes sense. If our entire lives — working, social, and otherwise — wasn’t online pre-COVID-19, then work-from-home, government updates, and making sure our loved ones are alive mandates we are now.

Still, you deserve joy. If the internet has become a space that dictates what’s important to you — rather than the other way around — it’s time to take it back. We have 9 tips that don’t involve the common advice of “just log off.”

Nope, to get the joy you deserve, we’re going to dismantle automation and build boundaries with intention. Here’s how.

Sorry to say that your 500 tabs aren’t bringing you joy. Extreme digital clutter (aka digital hoarding) has been shown to be linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety (although not necessarily proven to be the cause). Even if you’re using it in the name of multitasking, this may be making you less productive and effective, because multitasking alters our brain chemistry for the worse.

If you can’t clear tabs, try OneTab open tabs into a single page of bookmarks, eliminating that visual to-do list and freeing up invaluable mental and emotional bandwidth.

Delete apps you haven’t touched in a week, or move them into folders so they don’t take up your screen. Or try to live the “one app at a time” life. Both steps can help eliminate the mindless toggling so many of us fall prey to.

The stuff you already know stresses you out has to go — or at least make it less powerful by controlling how it pops up in your feed. Sandwich the content to remind you that the internet is a spectrum of joy and action, not good vs. bad.

Amy Franzini, PhD, an associate professor of communications at Widener University, has a tip for those who need the news, for work or otherwise: “We don’t need to immerse ourselves in it 24/7. Follow positive social media sites such as Some Good News and Positively Positive to balance [your feed].”

To curate your endless scroll:

  • Turn targeted ads off on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
  • Stop push notifications from news sources.
  • Hide or mute people who use social media to rant.
  • Block words via Twitter so that content doesn’t show up in your feed, even when you search.
  • Create a whole new account to purge your old identity, if it’s easier.
  • Rely on your email for news instead of social media.
  • Unfollow people or accounts with content that curate guilt instead of inspiration.

Think of it as a virtual version of the old tidying adage, “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

For example, you could keep social media apps on your tablet only, answer emails and stream shows on your laptop only, and keep messenger apps to your phone as a dedicated texting space. This is especially the case if you have a mix of personal and work-issued devices.

Keep Slack off your personal laptop. Resist the temptation to go on double-duty because remember: We humans suck at multitasking.

Don’t have multiple screens? Load your content and then turn off your wifi to prevent notifications from coming through.

“Try to stick to just one or two social media platforms,” says Bethany Baker, executive director of digital wellness non-profit, A-GAP. “The more we consume any content, the more drained and potentially anxious or lonely we will feel. I encourage you to set timers for your social media consumption so that you don’t get stuck in the mindless scroll.”

Dog accounts? Cats? You can find that anywhere, but even that fun stuff shouldn’t feel like it’s everywhere. Instead, use each platform intentionally. For example, keep your dogs and cats to Instagram; romance novelists on Twitter; and websites for news. This can help decrease surprise in your feed and also make it easier to log off since you know nothing “new” will come up.

“Focus on what is life-giving over what could be life-draining,” says Baker. “Once you do this, scrolling your feed in short spurts won’t seem as overwhelming.”

And we’re not talking about social media communities. If you have a passion, go off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and deeper into the web where your people are making efforts to connect. (Insta-comparison is the stuff of depression, folks!)

Studies have found that engaging in online discussion can actually have profound positive impacts on mental health and emotional well-being, especially for those with marginalized identities where being online is the only place they feel seen.

So look for Slack groups, chat communities, or old-school forums (they exist!) where all they want to talk about is… whatever makes the inside of your soul go gooey. Seriously, there’s a place on the internet where you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Our biggest tip when navigating these spaces? Honor your voice. If discussions make you feel like you’re another comment in the crowd, it might not be the place to be.

Experts have found that the internet acts as a unique space for expressing versions of ourselves that we, for whatever reason, can’t share IRL — especially among people who struggle with social anxiety.

And remember, when it comes to curating an online persona, you’ll get the most out of letting your creative side guide the way; engaging in creative, artsy activities is a proven way boost to your mental health.

Where to go:

  • Start an anonymous, bare-all blog at Livejournal, which is still around!
  • Give your middle school fanfiction writer back their voice at Wattpad or even (because yes, it still exists and no, they don’t appear to have updated the layout once since 2001).
  • Create a weird, GIF-explosion of a personal webpage at Neocities (the modern internet’s answer to GeoCities).
  • Need social media? Use the desktop version and bookmark the group, account, or page to avoid falling into the endless scroll of the newsfeed. Desktop versions of mobile sites are often built to be less user-friendly.

Michael Burich, co-founder of mindfulness and relaxation app Synctuition, says that, especially during the COVID-19 lockdowns, taking the time to write positive reviews of the businesses out there providing essential services is a great way to make the most of positive time online.

“Small business owners, authors, chefs, and waiters, love to read reviews, especially good ones. Sometimes, it’s ‘make or break’ for a business,” he says.

“So use the time you have during the lockdown and get those reviews out and talk up the things you enjoy. Review the restaurant you loved before the lockdown or the book that helps you escape at night. Say a good word and make sure others see it. As things slowly start to open up, your words will have so much weight and offer a real pick-me-up as people work to get back on their feet.”

We’d like to say log off completely, but in an era of physical distancing, we know that’s hard. So if you decide to fall into the endless scroll, train your gut to know whether or not you should even click on an article, engage in a debate, or just move along.

If you do decide to pipe up in the debate — or send the debate to a friend to discuss, take a look at the sources people are quoting first.

Are they using reputable, fact-checked outlets? UC Merced has a guide to characteristics of reputable newspapers, which includes things like citing primary sources (like firsthand quotes from experts and documentation of facts and statistics).

Checking sources:

  1. Check for author bylines or expert reviewers in the articles they post.
  2. Decipher the headlines: Does it convey facts instead of trying to evoke emotion?
  3. Is the outlet known for publishing corrections when they do get facts wrong?
  4. Does the outlet hold specific political biases?
  5. Stick to .gov sources, research from universities, or scientific institutions for medical information.
  6. Look for any disclosures for potential biases, like funding from a marketing agency or political party invested in a specific outcome.

The UC Merced guide also includes a list of red flags to look out for that could indicate a news source is less-than-reliable, including websites that are poorly designed or formatted or those with addresses that end in “,” which frequently copies reputable websites to deceive the public.

Depending on the next click for your positive emotions can cause an internet binge and a hangover — it also qualifies as problematic internet usage, and it doesn’t do your mental health any favors.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t indulge in Wikipedia wormholes from time to time! We’re not the fun police here. It just means being clear about when you’re budgeting time to “waste” online and to practice self-discipline when you shouldn’t be.

“Set a fun intention for your online perusing,” recommends Kelsey Patel, author of Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki & Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety & Stress. “Whether it’s to watch some fun videos, learn a few wellness tips by finally reading that article you’ve kept but never read, or to find some inspiring new hobbies.”

Then when you’ve done that, log off.

Kayleigh Roberts is a freelance writer and editor. If you want to know more about her, Google “Leslie Knope eating salad GIF.” Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.