Just a couple of weeks ago I celebrated my twenty-year high school reunion. I guess that officially dates me (there is no denying it anymore–I’m old!), but it was pretty funny to look back on how much has changed since I graduated in 1996. Back then we used maps to get places and pay phones to call people. And computers were mostly just good for playing solitaire. Seriously, twenty years ago, who could’ve imagined the incredible amount of time we now spend (and yes, waste) online?

Here in the U.S., we spend an average of 4.7 hours per day on our phones and we check social media 17 times a day on average. Teenagers reportedly spend a whopping 9 hours (NINE HOURS!!!) per day on social media–more than ONE THIRD of their day! Needless to say, these stats are pretty shocking!

It’s not that the Internet is a terrible thing. On the contrary; it’s a wonderful and amazing resource, one that has personally allowed me the freedom to work from anywhere. It’s a great communication tool, allowing us to learn so many things and share so much with those around us. We can stay in touch with loved ones from across the country and almost instantly know what our friends and family members are up to, how they’re doing, and what their opinions and feelings are about all sorts of things (for better or for worse). We can also get any information we need at the push of a button–directions, research, news….you name it, it’s there.

Plus, let’s face it—it’s fun!

Modern life has definitely changed a lot in the last twenty years, which means that we need to adjust right a long with it. In fact, there’s a whole new set of rules, etiquette and proper boundaries we need to figure out in order to keep ourselves mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually healthy. While the Internet is both a blessing and a tool, we must use it wisely or it could very well consume our live and bring us nothing but sadness, anger and misery.

After all, how many times have you felt overwhelmed by social media or your inbox? Have you caught yourself frantically documenting moments rather than enjoying them? Have you ever made your child repeat a cute moment, hold a pose, or wait while you kept snapping for the perfect picture? Do you wait to eat or run to a window because you “need” to photograph your plate in the right light?

Alternatively, does your blood start to boil when you read someone’s political rant on Facebook? Have you engaged in arguments in your newsfeed, only to be left seething for hours because of a comment someone made? Do you ever type replies then delete them, yet feel frustrated and upset afterwards?

“IRL” (in real life) we have to remember to set appropriate boundaries. We wouldn’t call our friends to tell them what we had for dinner (unless it was REALLY amazing), nor would we take hundreds of photos if we were using film. We wouldn’t rush to the store the moment a photo was taken to have it developed and then mail it to our entire family, either—so it makes sense that we shouldn’t have to pause activities just so we can over-document them and send them out right away.

In day-to-day face-to-face life, we typically avoid friendships with people who are demeaning, argumentative, or just plain rude. People used to follow the adage that we shouldn’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. Somehow though, when it comes to social media, everyone is eager to express their opinion—and manners fly out the window when people are allowed to post anonymously. Some of us can get downright nasty with each other when we’re not standing in front of each other, and unfortunately, these all caps screaming matches very rarely serve to change an opinion and usually just damage the relationship.

The following online “rules” have saved me on more than one occasion, so I hope they’ll help you feel more sane about your online interactions and relationships, too!

Reduce your online time by limiting the amount of times you check your email.

1. You Don’t Have to Interact with Every Email

One of the easiest ways to reduce your online time is to simply realize you don’t have to respond to everything that hits your inbox. Above all, first work to unsubscribe from unnecessary mailing lists and advertisers to keep your inbox down to just your favorites and the important “need to reply” items. Make it a personal policy: if you don’t read an email newsletter or advertisement, or if you trash it without opening it more than a few times, you should remove yourself from the list. You’ll feel much more under control. Everyone gets overwhelmed when they see they have 50 new emails.

For personal emails, if it’s a forward of cat pictures or “helpful advice” from your aunt, just skip it. Mention to your aunt that while you love staying in touch, you’re trying to limit the amount of time you spend on emails, so you’d love an occasional personal message from her rather than the constant forwards.

As for other personal emails, text messages and “chat” conversations, try to respond in three sentences or less and limit the back-and-forth to three interactions. If it takes more time or requires a lengthier response, chances are a phone call is in order. A quick call can take much less time and make it easier to clarify your message, so you’ll get to the heart of the matter much more quickly.

Let go of the need to get in the final word on every email (and text for that matter). Sometimes it’s okay not to reply “thank you” or even worse, “you’re welcome.” While it’s nice to acknowledge emails so the sender knows they’re received, sometimes the back-and-forth keeps their inbox cluttered as well.


2. You Don’t Have to “Like” Everything

It’s easy to become a compulsive serial “liker” on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, likes become akin to views. We can end up spending vast amounts of time liking friends’ pictures, commenting “yum” on their photos, and interacting a whole bunch without actually interacting at all.

On Facebook, you can like comments and replies to comments. (Eek!) Liking becomes the normal response when you have nothing more to say and you don’t want the commenter to feel like you’ve ignored their comment or reply. This becomes an endless chain of comments and validation with no end in sight.

While some of us may have livelihoods supported by social media, it’s okay if you don’t spend hours “liking” everything. In fact, posting regularly, making fewer but more substantial comments, and sharing posts you like can go just as far in keeping you present and engaged in social media conversations.

It’s okay if you miss some posts. Not every post on Facebook is directed to you personally and there are plenty of people liking and commenting (like those teenagers who are spending 9 hours a day on social media). Give yourself a break and step away from the newsfeed.


3. You Don’t Have to Respond to Everything

What about the dreaded birthday-message reply question? If someone took the time to write a birthday message on your wall or to comment, “looks fun” on your family vacation photo, shouldn’t you respond?

Yes, most etiquette guidelines would say we should reach out and thank someone who makes an effort for us. That said, have you ever felt heartbroken when someone didn’t respond to your comment? Chances are, you haven’t even noticed.

If you could funnel the response time toward hand writing cards instead of surfing social media, think of how many more friends you would touch. A handwritten card is much more meaningful and heartfelt. It takes time and it’s exciting when you get it in the mail.

When it comes to responses and replies, opt for the quality over quantity approach. Go the extra mile to reach out and send personal messages, actual greeting cards and real mail to those who mean the most to you and let go of all the rest. You’ll find a deeper satisfaction from your interactions and so will the people who receive your warm and personal note.

A healthy relationship with social media means only sharing what makes you happy.

4. Share Only What Makes You Feel Good

With the introduction of FOMO (fear of missing out), people report they experience real depression and feelings of inadequacy because they’re constantly comparing themselves to the lives and happiness they see online. Often what we see on social media is the literal highlight reel of our friends’ lives. We see the vacation photos, the gourmet meals, and the beautiful flowers in their yard. We feel like our lives are somehow less, like we’re failing and woefully inadequate compared to our peers.

Here’s the deal, though—if you feel like sharing your vacation photos or a beautiful cake you made, go for it! On the same note, if you feel like sharing a struggle you’re having or asking for emotional support, then it’s perfectly okay to do that, too.

What you shouldn’t feel obligated to do is share because there’s some rule that you should post to social media regularly. You don’t have to change your relationship status to reflect an estrangement from your spouse. You don’t have to post pictures of your cold medicine because you didn’t go to church this week and you don’t want people to speculate where you were…it’s okay!

Give yourself permission to use your social media the way YOU want to use it. If you feel like only reposting cute puppy videos, go for it. Don’t compare yourself to others. It isn’t a contest to see who can get the most likes or post the dreamiest summer barbecue photo. Your social media should be solely about what you want to share with your friends and family—not an obligation.


5. Don’t Forget Privacy is Important

The reality of an Internet privacy breach is one of the worst lessons to learn the hard way. Never forget that everything you post can be found. Every. Single. Thing. We’ve all seen and heard horror stories about someone’s boss finding their college party photos or of a vengeful ex sharing private photos with the world…or even worse.

Protect yourself by limiting your audience and keeping your posts private. If you run a blog or have a professional social media presence, you may want to keep a separate personal account or maintain tight privacy settings on your personal photos and posts. When you put things out there, no matter how innocent or unintended, they can definitely be found and used again and again.

Similarly, don’t allow photos of yourself to be posted without your permission. If someone does post something, quickly ask them to remove it. Protect yourself and never put personal information such as geographic location and contact info on your account. Be smart and remember to check your privacy settings with each social media software update, as privacy settings sometimes change with new features and layouts.

6. Turn Off Your Push Notifications

If you really want to free yourself from the chains of social media, consider turning off the push notifications on your phone. These popups show up on your phone to let you know when someone has liked, shared or commented on your photos, posts or tweets. You might also get notifications if someone sends you an email.

Turning off these notifications won’t mean you won’t receive the comments. When you log into the application, you’ll still see them, but you won’t be tempted to look at each comment, every time something shows up on your screen. You can add another hurdle by always fully logging out of each application after use.

If you’re still having a tough time staying off social media, try a productivity-boosting app like Forest, Self Control, Anti-Social or Freedom to help you keep yourself on task. These apps can block your access to social media and other sites for a set period of time to keep you free from the distractions of constant phone checking.

Limit your social media time so it doesn't interfere with your life.

7. Limit Your Social Media Time

If blocking social media from your phone or using an app seems a bit too extreme for you, try setting aside a set amount of time each day when you can check social media, pin, tweet and post. You can even set aside an amount of time when you plan to respond to emails in general. Block the time out on your calendar and schedule it, just as you would schedule any activity—then stick to it.

Electronic devices can emit blue light, which interferes with sleep and relaxation. Part of getting a good night’s sleep includes limiting your e-time before bed and putting aside all your devices for at least an hour or two before you hit the hay. You’ll sleep more soundly and deeper without the interference.

Similarly, other health problems, such as eyestrain, neck and back pain, and even neck wrinkles can come about because we’re constantly looking down at our phones and tablets. When you’re on the computer, use proper posture and seating. Remember what your typing teacher told you in high school: sit up straight, keep your feet on the floor. If you’re really struggling, consider a standing or walking desk, which can help you avoid hunching over a small screen.

8. Know When to Unfollow, Defriend or Block

Decluttering and unstuffing your life isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s a little painful. Social media has become a bit of a rat race to make contacts and collect friends. Again, those who are in business-based online relationships might need to maintain certain circles and personas for their career.

When it comes to your personal social media, however, know when it’s time to say when. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. If you have a cousin whose politics drive you crazy or a friend from high school whose posts enrage you, simply unfollow them. When it comes to Facebook, the feature is very easy and they won’t even know you did it. You’re still listed in their friends list, but you no longer have to see their rants in your newsfeed. Keep in mind though, they can still see (and comment) on your posts, unless you create different audiences for different posts.

At some point, as you’re creating different audiences and trying to tailor each post to a set of friends, you have to ask yourself, is it really worth it to continue to be “friends” with someone who I don’t want to see my posts and who I’ve blocked from my newsfeed? It can be hard, but if the person isn’t your friend in real life or if you feel your social media relationship is damaging your in-person interactions (are your political arguments with your cousin making your family holiday parties uncomfortable?), then it’s probably time to “unfriend.”

When you unfriend someone on Facebook or stop following them on Instagram, they don’t receive a notice of your action. It might take them some time to discover it and they might not even notice, but your life will be decluttered and free from their negativity. It’s also totally okay to limit your Facebook friends to your very close friends and to use another program like LinkedIn to maintain your professional relationships. You can use Instagram, Tumblr or other programs for broader, less personal things you’d like to share.

Lastly, if you’re being harassed online or if someone is personally attacking you or making you uncomfortable, you can block their username. This will mean they can’t search for you, they can’t see your private “friends only” posts, and they can’t contact you online. If you have private accounts, blocking a harasser can keep you from having to endure their mean, toxic attacks.

Social media can be a wonderful tool and a powerful way to connect with the world, but it can also be abused and over-used. Keep yourself in check and in moderation. Be sure your online time is enhancing your life rather than simply taking up space and time!

Share Your Thoughts: What online boundaries have you set for yourself or your children?

8 Boundaries Every Online Relationship Needs

Ruth Soukup
Ruth Soukup is dedicated to helping people everywhere create a life they love by follwing their dreams and achieving their biggest goals. She is the host of the wildly popular Do It Scared podcast, as well as the founder of Living Well Spending Less® and Elite Blog Academy®. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including Do It Scared®: Finding the Courage to Face Your Fears, Overcome Obstacles, and Create a Life You Love, which was the inspiration for this book. She lives in Florida with her husband Chuck, and 2 daughters Maggie & Annie.
Ruth Soukup


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