AMES, Iowa —Social media, like so many other things in life, is best enjoyed in moderation. That’s the main finding of a team from Iowa State University, which focused on young adults and their mental health. When a group of college students limited their social media use to just 30 minutes a day, the participants scored significantly lower for anxiety, depression, loneliness and fear of missing out (FOMO).
Tens of millions of people use social media daily, but concerns about the psychological impact of these platforms have grown in recent years, especially among young adults and teenagers. Recently, both the American Psychological Association and the Surgeon General of the United States have issued health warnings in relation to social media use among adolescents.
In short, a growing body of recent research points to an undeniable trend: Young people are using social media more, and their mental health is suffering. So, ISU researchers put together a two-week experiment involving 230 college students. Half of the participants had to limit their social media use to 30 minutes a day. This group even received automatic reminders each day to cut back. That cohort ended up scoring significantly lower for anxiety, depression, loneliness, and fear of missing out by the end of the study than the control group.
The experimental group also scored higher for positive affect, described by the study authors as the tendency to experience positive emotions described in words such as excited and proud. In other words, a brighter outlook on life.
I was surprised to find that the well-being of the participants improved not just in one dimension, but in all. I was thrilled to learn that an intervention as simple as sending a daily reminder can motivate people to change their behavior and improve their social media habits, says study lead author Ella Faulhaber, a Ph.D. student in human interaction. -machine, in a university version.
The research team notes that the psychological benefits of limiting social media use also extended to participants who sometimes exceeded the 30-minute limit.
The lesson here is that it’s not about being perfect, it’s about putting in the effort, which makes all the difference. I think self-restraint and paying attention are the secret ingredients, more so than the 30-minute benchmark, Faulhaber explains.
Douglas Gentile, study co-author and distinguished psychology professor, adds that these findings fit neatly with other research stemming from the fields of kinesiology and health.
Knowing how much time we spend on activities each day and making something countable makes it easier for people to change their behaviors, says the researcher, taking both Fitbits and daily steps as an example.
Many study participants commented that the first few days of cutting were challenging. Subsequently, however, it was noticed that they felt much more productive and in tune with their lives. Others said they were sleeping better or spending more time with others in person.
The study authors also point out that other projects have studied the effects of limiting or abstaining from social media. However, many of these interventions require heavy supervision, deleting apps or using a special application to block or limit social media. Similar to rehab for people addicted to narcotics, external accountability can prove very helpful for some looking to step away from social media. Unfortunately, this approach also carries a higher risk of backfiring.
When a perceived freedom is taken away, we begin to resist, says the prof. Gentile, adding that deleting social media also means losing some of its benefits, such as connecting with friends and family.
All in all, Faulhaber says this study extends current social media research while providing a practical way for people to limit their use. For anyone looking to cut back, he has three recommendations:
- Raise awareness. Use a timer or a built-in wellness app to see how much time you spend on social media.
- Give yourself grace. Recognize that it’s not easy to stick to a time limit. Social media apps are designed to keep you swiping.
- Do not give up. Limiting your use of social media over time can offer real benefits to your day-to-day life.
In conclusion, the study authors say it’s also important to be aware of how and when we use social media. Future studies could explore this topic, as well as the long-term effects of limiting social media and what people do with the time they go back.
We live in an age of anxiety. Many indicators show that anxiety, depression and loneliness are getting worse and this can make us feel helpless. But there are things we can do to manage our mental health and well-being, concludes Prof. Gentile.
The study is published in the journal Technology Mind and behavior.
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