The idea that social media can be detrimental to our mental and emotional well-being is nothing new, but researchers have not been directly measuring the effect. Studies and correlative studies are, at best, suggestive. A new experimental study by Penn State, however, directly links more social media usage to worse emotional conditions, and less use for better.
To be clear on terminology here, a simple survey may ask people to report it themselves. Using Instagram makes them feel bad. For example, a correlative study finds that people who report more social media are more likely to experience depression as well. An experimental study compares the results of an experimental group with their behavior systematically modified, and a control group that is allowed to do what they want.
This study, led by Melissa Hunt at Penn State's Psychology Department, is the latter ̵
One hundred and forty-three students from school were monitored for three weeks after they were assigned to either limit their social media usage to about 10 minutes per app (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) per day or continue to use what they normally would. They were monitored for a baseline before the trial period and were assessed weekly on a number of standard tests for depression, social support and so on. The use of social media was monitored through the iOS battery screen, which shows app usage.
The results are clear. As the paper, published in the latest Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, puts it:
Limited user group showed significant reduction in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared with the control group. Both groups showed significant reduction in fear and fear of missing out on the baseline, which indicates an advantage of increased self-control.
Our findings strongly suggest that reducing social media use to approx. 30 minutes a day can lead to significant improvement in wellness-being.
However, that is not the last word in this. Some points do not see improvements like self-esteem and social support. And later follow-up to see if emotions spent or habitual changes were less than temporary were limited because most of the subjects could not be forced to return. (Psychology, often summarized as "student study", relies on student volunteers who have no reason to participate, except for credit credits, and when granted, they are out.)
Having said that, There is a single causal connection between limiting social media usage and improving some aspects of emotional and social health. The exact nature of the link, however, is something that Hunt could only wonder:
Some of the existing literature on social media suggests that there is a huge amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at the lives of others, especially at Instagram, it's easy to conclude that the life of others is cooler or better than yours.
When you are not keen to be sucked into clickbait social media, you actually spend more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.
The researchers acknowledge the limited nature of the study and suggest many directions for colleagues in the field to take it from here. A more varied population, for example, or, among other things, more social media platforms. Longer experimental times and extensive follow-up well after the experiment will also help.
The 30-minute limit was chosen as a conveniently measurable, but the team does not intend to say that it is in any way "correct" amount. Perhaps half or twice as much time would give similar or even better results, they suggest: "It may be that there is an optimal usage level (like a dose response curve) that can be determined."
Until then, we can use common sense, Hunt suggested: "In general, I would say, let your phone be and be with the people in your life."