“Today, spend a little time cultivating relationships offline. Never forget that everybody isn’t on social media.” – Germany Kent
If you are among those who anxiously check the posts of your social media contacts because you obsessively have to know what’s going on in their world and can’t seem to curb your urge to remain riveted to your feed, new research on the negative effect of too much social media on well-being is worth reviewing.
I recently spoke with Melissa G. Hunt, one of the authors of “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression,” published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Hunt and her research colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, in a 2018 study, alleged there is a causal link between usage of social media and loneliness and depression. They say that spending inordinate amounts of time on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat does more than connect users to their contacts. It’s also making them decidedly more miserable, promoting greater feelings of loneliness and depression.
During the period of the study, participants in the research significantly reduced their time on social media for about three weeks. The result was they reported reduced feelings of loneliness and depression.
Researchers said that the fear of missing out (FOMO) is what drives people to obsess over social media, spending extraordinary amounts of time in this sedentary activity. They strongly recommend limiting screen time to about 30 minutes a day, saying that this simple self-limiting measure may lead to “significant improvement in well-being.”
Why do people use social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, if it makes them feel lonelier and more depressed?
MGH: Social media companies hire experts whose job is to make the sites as appealing and addictive as possible. For example, they use algorithms to ensure that you are getting “new” information, and “likes” on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. That is, things appear at intervals to reward you for logging on and spending time.
Social media also gives the appearance of engagement and intimacy and sites like Instagram promise to keep you up to speed on the latest trends. Women have been reading “women’s” magazines for decades, and we know that reading them decreases self-esteem and increases body image concerns and self-loathing. Certain types of social media are no different.
What do you say to those who complain that social media is essential in today’s world, that they can’t live without it? Isn’t this an impossible recommendation, suggesting people limit their time? Or, can they get the benefit of social media with less screen time?
MGH: It might be unrealistic to suggest foregoing social media completely (although I do). That’s why we didn’t require that. We just asked people to limit themselves to 30 minutes per day. That’s more than enough time to catch up with friends, find out when your study group is meeting, and like your cousin’s cute kid picture. It prevents going down the “rabbit hole” of clicking randomly, following celebrities, or cyber stalking your ex’s new flame.
How do you wean yourself off social media? Any quick tips?
MGH: Self-monitoring seems to help. Although we didn’t study them, apps that increase your awareness of how much you’re using (like In Moment and Space) may well help people become more mindful and self-aware.
Do you know of other studies that document how social media fuels loneliness and depression?
MGH: There are many correlational studies out there that establish the association, and a number that suggest that social media fosters social comparison that makes you feel bad about your own life, and FOMO that makes you aware of all the things you weren’t invited to and weren’t included in.
I think that social media tends to foster inauthentic connection. True intimacy involves sharing both life’s highlights and the terrible times. Things you’re proud of, and things you’re sad or anxious or embarrassed about. Social media tends to reward only the highlights, and that doesn’t lead to true intimacy or social support.
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SUGGESTED WAYS TO LIMIT SCREEN TIME.
It’s not all dire. You don’t have to completely withdraw from social media. Indeed, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Hunt, you can reap the benefits of moderate limitations on your social media consumption. The next and most obvious question is, how do you limit social media time? Here are some suggestions.
Get an app for that.
Apple, the maker of perhaps the most popular smartphone in the world, recently made an update available that helps its users set limits on certain apps they use and track those that take up so much of their time. The update section this pertains to is called Screen Time.
Meanwhile, there are several apps that allow users to limit how much time they’re using their phones. These, of course, vary in terms of how intensely you limit phone time.
Yet another potential help for limiting social media time is the use of browser extensions such as StayFocusd, available through the Chrome web store. The idea is that users are allowed a certain amount of time on the website and then the screen is locked – and there’s no way back in. Check out the so-called “nuclear option” that prevents users from going into a specific website altogether. Now, that is a bit extreme, but it is out there.
Not everyone is blessed with the ability to not only set limits on how much social media time they’ll engage in, but actually follow through with the discipline it takes to do so effectively. Think of all the other things you could be doing instead of frittering away hours poring over likes, comments, postings and the like. Maybe enlist a trusted friend, a loved one or family member to get you out of the house and doing something in real time, with live people (not digital connections). What a concept!
Disable (temporarily) all social media notifications.
Another helpful way to curb your constant social media obsession (if not quite social media addiction) is to turn off or disable the notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media time-wasting sites. No more suffering through the anxiety-provoking habit of having to instantly reply to every notification. This doesn’t have to be a permanent deletion, just a temporary pause to allow you to get back in the realm of living in the present and interacting with real people.
In the world of social media, just as in any websites, advertising, TV programs and other forms of media that grab attention, color is king. The brighter the color, the more enticing, right? As an experiment to see if this can help you ratchet down your social media consumption, use grayscale to make the sites less attractive. When everything is in shades of gray, it’s easier to forego the temptation to linger there. On iPhones, hit settings, general, accessibility, display accommodations, color filters (turn this on), and then grayscale. That’s it, you’ve made your screen colorless.
Get rid of your phone – or leave it home.
A bit more extreme is the suggestion you ditch your phone completely. Like that would ever happen in today’s always-on society. You could try leaving it at home while you go out for a walk. That would give you a social-media breather at least. It might even persuade you that you don’t need to be tethered to your phone. After all, you’re not really missing out on anything. All that social media interaction will still be there after you return from a well-deserved (and much-needed) break.
Make it a point to be with people who appreciate you for who you are.
Nobody’s perfect. Each of us has flaws and traits we’d like to minimize, as well as talents we wish we had or accomplishments we’d love to broadcast. The problem with too much time wasted on social media is that everybody else looks better than we do. That’s not reality and it certainly does nothing for our self-esteem. A proven remedy to increase well-being is also one of the easiest to implement: Spend time with those who appreciate you for who you are. Laugh together. Share a meal. Go to a movie. Garden, spend time in nature, take in a concert, do various types of activities together. In fact, once you resurrect the in-person kind of communication, you’ll find that digital connections are a pale and distant substitute.
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A version of this article was originally published on Psych Central. However, the interview with Melissa G. Hunt is new.
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