When College Students Cut Back on Social Media, They Got Happier: Study

TUESDAY, June 20, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Cutting back social media to a spare 30 minutes per day could be the key to reducing anxiety, depression, loneliness and feelings of fear of missing out, researchers say.

That was true for college students in a new study who self-limited social media -- often successfully and sometimes squeezing in just a bit more time -- for two weeks.

“I think on the one hand, the results are kind of counterintuitive, right? If you talk to many people, they would tell you that social media is how they manage their stress, how they keep themselves entertained, how they stay connected with other people. So, I think the typical perception is that people use social media to cope,” said lead author Ella Faulhaber, a doctoral student in human-computer interaction at Iowa State University.

Faulhaber said researchers gained interesting insights when they asked participants about their experience.

“Lots of them said, 'I had trouble at first but then I realized how much I better slept, how I actually connected more with people in real life, how I found myself keeping busy with other things,'" Faulhaber said.

The study dovetailed with recent health advisories from the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association, which warned that young people's mental health has suffered as their use of social media has surged.

Faulhaber's team worked with 230 college students, asking half to limit their social media to 30 minutes each day. They received daily reminders.

At the end, these students had significantly lower scores for depression, anxiety, loneliness and fear of missing out compared to the control group, which was not asked to limit social media.

This group also had a brighter outlook on life.

Faulhaber said she was excited to find that participants’ well-being improved in all these dimensions.

Even students in the self-limiting group who didn’t strictly adhere to the 30-minute limit experienced psychological benefits.

“We will never be perfect, but really putting in that effort does really make a difference,” Faulhaber said.

Allowing participants to self-limit gave them more personal accountability.

“You're creating awareness. You're setting a timer. Maybe you're just becoming aware of your usage,” Faulhaber said. “I feel like most people don't even know how much time has passed when they're aimlessly scrolling. And we also need to keep in mind that most social media platforms have been designed or created to foster that.”

Faulhaber calls this the “age of anxiety.” Spending time with people on social media or Zoom just can’t replace in-person contact, she said.

Other research suggests that active use of social media, such as commenting on a friend’s post or sending a direct message, has fewer negative consequences than just scrolling and consuming, she said.

“To me, the takeaway is this is definitely doable," Faulhaber said. "This experiment really shows you that if you try to limit your social media usage, it is effective and you might actually feel better.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Howard Liu, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Communications, reviewed the findings.

Liu said people are social creatures, and even before the pandemic, were experiencing a lot of loneliness, as the U.S. Surgeon General has pointed out.

“I think we all ache for connection, and social media seems to offer that, but it's not quite the same as the real thing,” he said.

Fear of missing out often makes social media difficult to put down once you’ve logged on, Liu said.

He said he appreciated the real-world experiment in this study. “Half an hour is a reasonable, a pretty easy-to-remember thing: I think that was really positive,” Liu said.

“The bottom line is people seem like they're overall just a bit happier and I think that's important,” he added.

Although there may not be enough therapists to meet college students' need for mental health therapy, this study offered a helpful example of what prevention could look like, Liu said.

He also suggested the buddy system might work in limiting social media as a team.

In the time saved by cutting back on social media, a person could exercise, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and is good for brain health, Liu said. Exercising outdoors is even more helpful from a mental health perspective, he added.

Making real-life connections with others could also be a good way to spend the reclaimed time, Liu said. That could be getting coffee with a roommate or calling a loved one on the phone, he said.

Mindfulness meditation can also be a valuable activity, even if you simply close your eyes and focus on your breathing for five minutes.

Sleep can also help, Liu said, and it’s a better alternative than scrolling on the phone at bedtime, taking in light that’s interfering with the body’s circadian rhythm.

"There's a lot of things that don't take a whole lot of time that we could easily substitute,” Liu said.

The research was published June 14 in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior.

More information

MIT Sloan School of Management has more on social media and mental health.

SOURCES: Howard Liu, MD, MBA, professor, psychiatry, University of Nebraska College of Medicine, Omaha; Ella Faulhaber, MS, doctoral student, human-computer interaction, Iowa State University, Ames; Technology, Mind, and Behavior, June 14, 2023

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