Social media has revolutionized how we communicate over the last 15 years, as seen by the massive expansion of the major platforms. By building virtual public profiles, individuals can engage with friends and family and meet new people based on common interests.
In the UK, the number of adults using social media platforms has almost doubled from 45% in 2011 to 71% in 2021. Among 16 to 44-year-olds, about 97% of us use social media, with scrolling as the most frequent online activity we perform. The widespread adoption of social media has led to an abundance of research examining its impact on individuals’ mental and physical health.
Depression is marked by a sense of ‘lowness’ and a loss of enjoyment. On the other hand, anxiety is marked by excessive and out-of-control concerns. Irritability, fatigue, restlessness, sleep issues, and poor focus and memory are all common symptoms of anxiety and depression. Similarly, low levels of happiness have been linked to the development of depression. Hence, it’s crucial to understand how social media affects these many mental health indicators.
What were researchers trying to find out
A group of researchers from the University of Bath, UK, are now hoping to expand on their findings by examining the mental health effects of social media usage.
“Social media is a part of life,” Dr. Jeff Lambert said in a press release. It’s an essential aspect of who many people are and how they interact with others. But if you’re spending hours each week browsing and it’s affecting your health, it might be worth reducing your usage to see if it helps.”
The study aims to see if having a short break from social media is beneficial to different demographics – or people with mental and physical health conditions). They wanted to see how it affects well-being, depression, and anxiety – and if the time spent on various social media platforms influences the association between social media cessation and happiness, anxiety, and despair.
The scientists randomly divided 154 people aged 18 to 72 who used social media every day into groups for the study. Some study participants were instructed to take a week off from social media, while others (the control group) were urged to continue using it as they did before. For some of the study participants, this meant freeing up about nine hours of their week that they would have otherwise spent scrolling through TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Dr. Jeff Lambert, the lead researcher at Bath’s Department of Health, explains: “Scrolling social media is all-encompassing that many of us do it 24/7 – From the time we wake up even to the moment we are about to sleep at night.”
“We know that social media usage is massive. There are growing concerns about its mental health impacts, so we wanted to investigate if asking people to take a week off could result in mental health advantages,” says the researcher.
The team intends to follow up with participants for at least a week to see if the benefits are still present. They used apps that detect screen usage to track participants’ social media use at the start of the trial. The participants also completed anxiety, depression, well-being surveys, and a follow-up questionnaire after one week.
- At the beginning of the study, participants said they spent 8 hours on average per week on social media.
- Participants who were instructed to take a one-week break showed substantial improvements in well-being, despair, and anxiety compared to those who continued to use social media a week later, indicating a short-term benefit.
- Participants who were asked to take a one-week break said they spent 21 minutes on social media on average, compared to seven hours for the control group.
People who took a week off from social media networks had better mental health outcomes, according to research published in the US journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking on Friday, May 6th, 2022. The report reveals considerable gains in happiness, despair, and anxiety. This study adds to the growing evidence that a brief break from social media might improve well-being and reduce sadness.
“The majority of our research participants explained that breaking away from social media for a while has improved their mood plus resulted in decreased anxiety,” said Lambert. “It suggests that even a short break can have a big influence.”
Another study in the US found significantly lower levels of depression and loneliness. But there were no changes in self-esteem, anxiety, and psychological well-being when undergraduates who were asked to limit their use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 10 minutes per day were compared with others who were told to continue as normal for three weeks. However, this survey only covered iPhone users and did not include the popular social media networks TikTok and Twitter.
Future work could look at the longer-term effects of a 1-week social media break on mental health. Many participants e-mailed the researcher during the study, alluding to an intention to change their relationship with social media. A one-week break may be sufficient to induce long-term behavioral modification. Further research is also needed to determine if supporting people to reduce their social media can be applied in other contexts. For example, in clinical contexts, increased social media use may be contributing to underlying psychopathologies.
Finally, future research could try to apply a larger sample of individuals to examine process-related issues like the intensity, frequency, and kind of social media, plus gain a better understanding of the mechanisms by which lowering social media can help with mental health. Future studies should also examine how behavioral, social, psychological, and individual factors affect the influence of social media non-participation on mental health outcomes at the participant level.
According to the findings, encouraging people to take a one-week break from social media can result in significant improvements in their happiness, depression, and anxiety and could be advised as a technique to assist people in managing their mental health. The researchers also hope that it will be included in therapy options for mental health management in the future. On the final note, future research should expand this to clinical populations and look at long-term impacts.
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