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July 24, 2023

Reducing social media usage by just 15 minutes a day improves one's well-being, research suggests

People who spend less time on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are less likely to be depressed or lonely, a recent study found

There are many paths toward living a healthier life, but here's one simple place to start: Put your phone down. 

By spending less time on social media in particular, recent research suggests, we can improve our overall health and well-being. Just a 15-minute reduction in social media usage per day can have a positive impact on health and social well-being, according to a study published in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science.

To conduct the study, researchers took a group of 50 undergraduate students in the United Kingdom and randomly divided them into three groups: One that reduced their social media usage, one that reduced social media and spent that time doing another activity, and one that made no changes in their behavior at all. Over the course of three months, the participants filled out questionnaires about their social media use and various health-related measures like sleep quality, depression, anxiety and loneliness.

The participants who spent less time on social media – about 37 minutes less, on average – saw notable improvements in their general health, immune function, depression and loneliness. The same group also showed lower levels of social media addiction compared to those who made no changes to their social media habits, suggesting at least one positive mental health-related impact of reducing social media time.

This isn't the first time researchers have probed the correlation between reduced social media usage and well-being. A 2018 study showed that college students who spent less time on social media platforms reported decreases in loneliness and depression. For that study, researchers divided 143 University of Pennsylvania undergrads into two groups – one that limited their social media use and one that did not – and then queried them about various aspects of their mental state. The results "strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being."

The impact of social media on mental and physical health has been studied extensively for years, but with mixed and somewhat complicated results.

On the one hand, countless studies have purported to show that social media can have negative effects on various aspects of mental and physical well-being. For example, a 2016 study looked at social media use among grade school-aged Korean children and found that "internet use poses a mental health threat to youth" because it can lead to cyberbullying and harassment and that "overdependence on social media platforms can impose significant mental and psychological costs." 

Similarly, studies from 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 all pointed to meaningful links between social media use and depression. Studies also have shown that social platforms can negatively impact sleep, among other aspects of human health. 

Still, correlation does not equal causation, as the authors of a systematic review of the scientific literature on the impact of social media on psychological issues point out. Though studies frequently show an association between social media and mental health issues like depression, researchers have seldom been able to prove that exposure to social media actually causes these issues. 

Meanwhile, an eight-year-long study that tracked the social media habits and mental health of 500 adolescents found that there was no link between increased time spent on social media and mental health problems at all.

The authors of this most recent study are well aware of the scientific shortcomings of the research on this topic, noting that "despite there being correlational evidence for a negative relationship between (social media) screentime and health and well-being, it is unclear whether screentime causes these negative effects." 

Still, with so many studies suggesting that a little digital detox is likely beneficial for our health, it can't hurt to give it a try. 

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