Whether you’re an influencer, an occasional poster, or just a lurker, you probably spend more time than you’d like on social media. Globally, able-bodied people with internet access now spend more than 2.5 hours a day on social platforms such as Instagram, Facebook or X (Twitter).
Social media use can become overwhelming and problematic when it interferes with school or work, causes conflict in your relationship, or damages your mental health. Although not officially recognized as a mental health disorder, some scientists even claim that problematic social media use is an “addiction.”
When you find yourself checking and scrolling through your accounts excessively, you may decide it’s time to go on a digital “diet” or “detox,” drastically reducing your usage or even avoiding social media altogether for a few days. But as our new research shows, this approach can reduce the positive effects of social media just as much as the negative ones. And in fact, we were surprised by how little our survey participants missed social media when we asked them to cut back.
This article is part of Quarter Life, about a variety of issues that concern our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or just making friends in adulthood. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent time in life.
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In a recent study, we asked participants to do just that. As 51 people attempted to abstain from social media for a week, we tracked their behavior and experiences throughout the day through surveys sent to their phones and computer tasks in a controlled environment.
We found that only a small percentage of participants abstained entirely. However, many were able to significantly reduce their use, from an average of three to four hours a day before the study, to just half an hour. Even after abstinence, participants’ daily use of social media remained well below the levels seen before the study.
The effect of curbing social media use
However, unlike previous digital detox studies, we did not observe an improvement in the well-being of our participants. Conversely, they reported a decrease in positive emotions during the abstinence period.
Social media provides powerful and quantifiable social rewards through gaining likes, shares and followers. While it also offers quick bursts of entertainment and fun, research shows that it’s often these social rewards that drive compulsive social media checking.
Humans are social animals. feeling part of a group, being accepted, and receiving praise are universal needs. Social media is a convenient and accessible tool to meet these needs anytime and anywhere we want, and provides a connection that can be missing in the world of remote work.
But these social rewards can quickly turn into unpleasant experiences. Getting likes can turn into chasing likes and feeling frustrated if your post performs worse than expected. Seeing other people’s lives can lead to fomo (fear of missing out) or envy, and at worst, users can become victims of nasty or hateful comments.
To this end, we also observed a reduction in negative emotions when participants reduced their use of social media. They felt slightly less miserable, sad, and cranky during the study.
In general, abstaining from social media appears to remove both positive and negative emotions; for some people the net welfare effect may be zero.
Could you be addicted to social media?
Perhaps the most illuminating finding was how little our participants missed social media. They did not report any increased urges, urges or cravings to check their accounts during the study, despite the drastic reduction in screen time.
It appears that stopping social media use does not cause “withdrawal” symptoms, as is sometimes seen when stopping drug use. With that in mind, we urge you to be careful when using the terms “addiction” to talk about social media use.
Framing social media use in addictive terms risks demonizing the technology and pathologizing normal behavior. Labeling users as “addicts” can lead to stigma and ignore other psychological issues that may underlie excessive use behavior. In our view, the term addiction should be reserved to describe a disease that involves lasting changes in the brain’s reward system.
After all, social media has both positive and negative sides, and it may only be the negative parts that people feel they need to detox from.
Perhaps a better way to think about improving your relationship with social media is like how you think about improving your diet. Both food and social media satisfy natural desires—energy for the former and social interaction for the latter.
In either case, you need to know your limits and prioritize healthy rewards. This might mean changing your perspective on how connected or liked you really should be, and unfollowing your accounts or deleting apps that make you feel bad.
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Image Source : theconversation.com