How many minutes (erm, hours) a day do you spend on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and more? And how does that powerful vortex of social media tend to make you feel? If it leaves you more lonely and depressed than connected and motivated, you’re not alone. In fact, the first causal study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania just proved that this negative relationship exists — and that limiting your exposure can benefit your mental health significantly.
In the study, which will be published in December’s Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers recruited 143 college students between the ages of 18 and 22 for two trials — one completed in the spring term and the other completed in the fall. All participants were required to have an iPhone and accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. The researchers first monitored the students for a week to get a snapshot of their typical social media use. They also gave them questionnaires to assess their well-being relating to social support, a fear of missing out (FOMO), loneliness, autonomy and self-acceptance, anxiety, depression and self-esteem.
Then, for the next three weeks of both trials, the participants were separated into two groups. The first group continued their typical use of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat while the second group spent only 10 minutes on each platform each day (a maximum of 30 minutes). At the end of the trials when evaluations were recorded, it was clear that less time spent on social media led to better mental health.
“Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness, ” lead study author Melissa G. Hunt said in a statement. “These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
The study does come with its limitations, however. For instance, since the researchers only monitored students’ phone activity, they can’t guarantee that the participants didn’t sneak onto Facebook and Instagram on their laptops at some point in the trials. It also wasn’t inclusive of all social media platforms, leaving out big players like Twitter and Pinterest. Beyond these components, we now need to see what happens when the trial length is extended beyond a few weeks and over a larger, more diverse sample size because those adjustments could reveal unique shifts as well.
On the positive side, it’s worth noting that the study didn’t ask any student to abandon social media altogether because that’s simply unrealistic at this point in our digitally connected society. The goal wasn’t to remove these environmental factors entirely, but rather to see what happens when you are mindful of how much time you engage with them. And the results give us hope that if we set reasonable time limits on ourselves when it comes to swiping, scrolling and posting, we would probably feel that much more content with our lives and ourselves.
Now, let’s put our phones down and go out for a cup of coffee (no Insta stories of latte art allowed).