Digital detoxing? New study says the ‘Goldilocks’ rule for social media screen time use may be the key

Digital detoxing? New study says the ‘Goldilocks’ rule for social media screen time use may be the key

Considering going on a social media hiatus? New research suggests short-term breaks from social networking sites (SNS) may not give you the mood boost you’re looking to achieve. Still, the scientists suggest cutting back can reduce the negative effects of social media without giving you significant withdrawal-like symptoms.  

How too much social media harms us

Americans check their phones more than 100 times a day, often drawn to social media networking sites whose algorithms lure us with enticing ads and posts. Around seven in 10 Americans use social media, and teens report spending an average of nearly five hours a day on social media platforms. This usage has been associated with increased mental health issues, feelings of low self-worth, social comparison, and depression, particularly for younger girls. 

“Social media use has been linked to causing or worsening various mental health symptoms. Research shows that it can disrupt sleep [and] increase stress levels and self-reported symptoms of depression,” Naiylah Warren, a licensed family and marriage therapist and clinical content manager at Real, a mental wellness app, previously told Fortune.

Reducing social media usage, on the other hand, has been associated with a less stress, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, and FOMO—or the fear of missing out. That’s why experts have suggested finding ways to limit the scroll and stay engaged with others to improve mental health—from prioritizing in-person hobbies and setting screen time limits, to putting the phone in another room and quitting social media completely.

However, research on how addictive social media is and the impact of a total hiatus from the networks proves inconsistent findings.  

A decrease in both negative and positive emotions

Researchers from Durham University in the U.K. wanted to understand the effects of a one-week social media hiatus—whether it improved overall well-being and mood or produced withdrawal-like symptoms similar to those who stopped using drugs and alcohol.

The study, conducted in 2022, included 51 people aged 18 to 25 who reported using at least one social media app daily and had screen time tracking enabled on their phones. All participants agreed to abstain from social media for one week and respond to a set of daily questions assessing their loneliness, boredom, sadness, happiness, and feelings about social media. They also answered questions about their well-being before and after they participated in the study.

The participants reduced their average daily social media screen time from nearly two hours to 53 minutes. However, a vast majority of the participants—86.5%—caved and didn’t stay off social media for the entire week. While the researchers note this could indicate the withdrawal of an addiction, the overall reduction of SNS usage was significant enough to suggest otherwise. Moreover, cutting back on social media didn’t lead to more or fewer cravings for the networks.

The hiatus decreased negative emotions like loneliness, likely attributable to the reduction in feeling FOMO and self-comparison, per the study. On the contrary, the social media break also decreased positive emotions, likely due to a lack of the dopamine boost that comes from social media likes and comments, which reinforces engagement with social media.

“Future research should determine whether such concurrent and psychologically counter-acting reductions of both positive and negative social experiences are indeed characteristic of SNS abstinence and can potentially explain the lack of consistent effects on well-being in some recent studies,” the authors write.

Despite the nuanced results, the researchers’ work points to social media’s influence on mood in both positive and negative ways, opening the door for conversations on how much, when, and in what capacity to indulge in the platforms. 

The researchers suggest considering the “Goldilocks” principle, “which posits that a moderate amount of SNS use may be beneficial to mental well-being,” according to the authors.

The authors note the limitations in their shorter follow-up period after the social media hiatus and call for research that looks at the longer-term effects of SNS abstinence on a wider variety of users.

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