Healthy Digital Boundaries in the Age of COVID-19

During this time of shelter in place orders and physical isolation, social media and virtual interaction have been a lifeline connecting us to loved ones, colleagues, classmates, and information about the broader world.  It seems like everything has gone online, from college courses to yoga classes to movie night or games with friends. Gone are the days of being told to “unplug,” and face to face interactions with our communities are out of the question for most of us.

woman sitting on white couch using laptop computer
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Some people might naturally be able to make the best of this new environment, but for others constant digital connection can worsen anxiety and create feelings of isolation or depression. Here are some ways to maintain your mental health while staying virtually connected:

Notice Your Mood, and Respect What You Need

The first step to setting good digital boundaries is to be aware of and honest about your needs and emotions. Check in with how you feel after looking at social media, reading the news, or messaging with a friend.  If you notice that you’re feeling pressured to connect with others constantly, that looking at social media makes you feel worse about yourself or your situation, or that your mood worsens after reading the news, it might be time to re-evaluate your digital boundaries.

Be Mindful of What You Share

We’re all in this together, and lots of people are being really vulnerable online right now. That can be wonderful; it humanizes us, allows us to reach out for support, and maintains our connections with each other. But it might not feel right for everyone, or in all circumstances. Chances are that you already know how to be smart about posting on social media, but it feels like all the rules are changing now. It might be a good time to sit down and think about parts of your life you don’t want to share, or how to show different parts of your experience to close friends versus all of your followers. [This goes for online classes as well: think “would I say/show/write this if I were in a lecture hall?”]

Beware of Online Fear of Missing Out

Does it look like everyone is still living their best life in quarantine? Do you feel like you aren’t getting invited to the (virtual) parties everyone else is attending? Remember, people are still only showing one version of themselves online, and it may not reflect their full reality. If you notice you feel worse about yourself after scrolling through social media, try reaching out to close friends or family for deeper connection – maybe a video call or some time talking on the phone about how you’re doing.

Watch out for the flip side of this as well – feeling pressured to show your best self online, all the time. You might notice that when you engage in self care you’re thinking about how it will look to others, or about posting it later. Sharing the things that are helping us cope can be great, but sometimes it’s nice to enjoy nature, exercise or create something without sharing, and noticing if there is any difference in the feeling it creates.

Limit Exposure to the News

One way many of us try to manage our anxiety is to seek out information about whatever is making us anxious, feeling that the knowledge will make us safer, or help us prepare for the worst. Given the endless news coverage of the current pandemic, coupled with how much time we’re spending on our phones and devices right now, it can be easy to slip into a pattern of reading the news constantly. But remember: more information doesn’t make you safer. So long as you are following the guidelines issued by public health organizations such as the CDC and your local government, you are doing your part to keep yourself and your community safe. Reading all of the new details may only worsen anxiety and increase a feeling of helplessness.

In order to combat these negative effects, you can practice mindful news consumption. For instance, choosing only to look at the news for half an hour in the morning or evening to catch up, making sure you have someone to process your feelings with afterward, and choosing one or two high quality news sources instead of clicking anything you see posted are all ways to preserve your mental wellbeing while staying informed.

Seek Healthy Connections

Meaningful connection during this time will look different for everyone. Some people might keep checking in with their small circle of friends, while others will embrace large group virtual hangouts, engage with their community support networks online, or share videos of their shelter-in-place routine. If you are looking for ways to connect and feel supported through this experience, CAPS is offering two COVID-19 online support groups through ZOOM (if you are interested, click here if you are an undergraduate senior, and here if you are any other UNC student – must be residing in state.) If you notice your mental health symptoms worsening, or you feel you or a friend are in crisis, you can call CAPS at 919-966-3658 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

This blog was written by Christine Crowther, a CAPS staff who works primarily with the UNC Medical School. 



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