Social media comparison is a real thing and it can make parenting even harder—particularly during the holidays. Experts weigh in on why sometimes it's nice to take a break from social media, especially when 'tis the season to be with the ones who matter most.
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An image of a dad with his son on a couch.
Credit: Getty Images.

It all starts innocently enough. I curl into bed after another exhausting day trying to get my house ready for the onslaught of the holiday season and click on Instagram to reward myself with a few uninterrupted minutes of mindless scrolling before going to sleep. However, the moment the first photo of a "perfect" Christmas tree, a clutter-free and spotless home, or a family in matching $100 holiday pajamas appears on my screen, the darkness starts to set in. Those initial bursts of excited dopamine are replaced with overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, and inadequacy.

What was meant as a way to unwind and decompress has turned into a downward spiral of social comparison, and an endless loop of intrusive thoughts and negative self-talk. And just like that, all the excitement the holiday season is supposed to bring is replaced with a depressive episode that I'll be lucky to be out of by January 1.

I know I'm not alone. Social media's effect on mental health has been a hot-button topic since its inception, with studies linking the use of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms to rising rates of depression and anxiety. And for caregivers, it makes the pressures of parenting higher than they've ever been.

A Priory Group survey in 2017, for example, found 23 percent of parents reported feeling depressed after seeing "happy family pictures" on Instagram or "exuberant baby blog posts" on Facebook. And research shows the holidays tend to exacerbate these mental health struggles.

That doesn't surprise Tom Kersting, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Disconnected: How to Protect Your Kids Against the Harmful Effects of Device Dependency, especially as people in the U.S. spend an average of two hours a day on social media. "The more we are exposed to everyone else's perfect, self-glorified lives, the more we question our own lives and our own self-worth," says Kersting.

So how can we, as parents, combat the overwhelming comparison, crippling anxiety, and depression related to social media during the holidays? For many experts, the answer is simple: Quit social media.

The Pros of a Holiday Social Media Detox

It may seem like a grandiose and impulsive decision but quitting social media can really help parents have a more enjoyable holiday season and here's why.

It boosts mental health

Nadia Charif, health and wellness advisor at the Portland, Oregon-based Coffeeble, has been taking mindful a digital detox from her social media feed for years. "I tend to have a little social media detox every year around the holidays because I don't want to consume it and hurt my overall mental health," says Charif. She instead focuses on low-stress activities like baking gingerbread treats with her family and watching holiday movies—and it makes all the difference.

The trigger of seeing people's picture-perfect depictions of their life can be enough to send you spiraling, especially if you're coming off a challenging year—whether emotionally, physically, or financially. "Seeing others post their perfect family holidays pictures, extravagant homes, or beautiful experiences can worsen depression, low self-worth, and anxiety, and in serious cases, even lead to suicidal thoughts and feelings," says Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist in Evanston, Illinois and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life. "If the holidays and/or social media tend to bring you down, taking a break from social media is something you can do as a proactive and preventative self-care measure."

Instead of scrolling, opt for something more beneficial to mental health, such as journaling, exercising, or taking a long bath.

It helps you stay present

Being more mindful and present was something I set out to do at the start of 2021, but as I grappled with working from home full-time, a raging pandemic, a toddler with special needs, and a move, those goals fell to the wayside. I started using social media as a way to "relax" from my busy days. Some days, I was spending a total of five hours scrolling. I soon began to realize it only took away more precious time I had to actually spend with the people I love.

"There are benefits from taking a break, resting, and letting ourselves just sort of think and exist in the moment," says Jackie Tassiello, a board-certified art therapist, based in Montclair, New Jersey. "Taking a break can help us release that need to be engaged and engaging. We just be—and there's restorative power in that."

It gives you the opportunity to swap the time you would spend scrolling on social media and use it to do something with your family instead, whether it's an impromptu trip to the ice-skating rink, a break to make holiday cookies, or time to catch up on holiday movie classics.

How Parents Can Use Social Media More Mindfully

If quitting is out of the question for you, that's totally OK. There are ways you can use it more healthfully so that it doesn't interfere with how you feel about your own parenting during the holiday season.

Moderate social media use

"Studies show that reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day can decrease depression, anxiety, loneliness, sleep disturbance, and fear of missing out (FOMO)," says Marter.

And the time you scroll matters too. Avoid checking social media first thing in the morning; starting your day with potentially triggering posts is a recipe for disaster. Same thing goes for scrolling right before bed. While good sleep hygiene involves taking a break from screens an hour before getting to bed, that also eliminates the chance you will see something upsetting that may impair your sleep. Instead, practice mindfulness, such as stretching, yoga, talking a walk, or deep breathing, and save social media scrolling for other times in the day.

Another good idea: "Remove notifications and resist the urge to compulsively check for likes or comments," says Marter.

For those who want to stay up to date on the world around them without being sucked into a social media rabbit hole, Salinder Kohli, social media expert and lead developer at Coffeeable, suggests just giving yourself a few minutes a day to check the news. "As alien as it felt at first not checking social media for news updates every five minutes, I allowed myself 10 minutes a day to catch up via reliable online outlets rather than checking shared Facebook articles," says Kohli. "It helped keep me in touch with the world without pushing me out of touch with my family."

Clean up your feed

You have complete control over what shows up on your social media feeds so unfollow or mute any accounts that don't empower you as a parent. Focus on the content that makes you feel good and remove the content or the other parents that trigger feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, or low self-worth.

Practice healthy self-talk while you scroll

Remember, what you see on social media isn't always reality. "Silence your inner critic and take what you see with a grain of salt and not at face value," says Marter. "Consider all that you do not know about the situation before writing a fictitious narrative in your head that might make you feel poorly about yourself."