Michael Posternak, MD. Dr. Posternak has no financial relationships with companies related to this material.
STUDY TYPE: Randomized controlled trial
It has long been speculated that spending too much time on social media might have negative effects on mental health. After all, who wouldn’t get depressed seeing how much fun everyone else in the world seems to be having? Although studies have consistently found a link between excessive social media use and depression, it can be hard to tell whether social media use exacerbates depression or is the result of it.
In this study, researchers recruited 154 volunteers from the community who agreed to be randomized to either continuing social media use as usual or abstaining from it for one week. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok were the four platforms they focused on. The mean age of subjects was 29 years, and subjects spent on average just over one hour a day on social media. Subjects were not required to suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder to participate, although about one-third of the subjects did meet criteria for moderate depression. The main outcomes of interest were reduction in depression and anxiety scores as well as overall sense of well-being.
In order to facilitate abstaining from social media, participants were provided with tips for doing so, such as signing out of relevant social media sites, deleting apps, turning off social media notifications, turning off their phones, and downloading app blockers. Screen time use was monitored using relevant apps.
The first finding of interest is that abstaining from social media is indeed feasible, at least in the short term. Subjects randomized to social media abstinence reduced their screen time use on average from 510 minutes to 21 minutes over the course of the one-week trial. This reduction in social media use was associated with improvements in depression, anxiety, and well-being scores, though the effect on depression was only apparent in those with at least mild depressive symptoms. One limitation of the study is that the subjects who volunteered were likely already motivated to abstain. It remains unknown how realistic abstaining from social media is for most people, or whether it can be maintained much beyond one week.
This study strongly suggests that social media use has detrimental effects on mental health. There are many lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise, getting adequate sleep, reducing alcohol intake, or cleaning the house, that we routinely recommend to our patients. It may be time to add reducing social media use to that list.
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