Do you find yourself feeling more anxious or depressed when you use social media?
Experts say it’s quite easy to fall into a pattern of doomscrolling, or obsessively scanning social media sites for bad news, especially when social media algorithms tend to give us even more of what we are already looking at.
However, University of Bath researchers say that a good way to break out of your bad mood and protect your mental health may be to take a break from social media.
They say even one week off sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could reduce your symptoms and generally improve your sense of well-being.
It can also free up several hours of time that you can use for other activities. In fact, some participants in the new study reported gaining as much as nine hours a week.
Social media breaks improve mental health
In order to study the effect of social media breaks on mental health, Dr. Jeff Lambert and his team randomly placed 154 daily social media users between the ages of 18 and 72 into one of two groups. The first group were asked to refrain from social media use for one week. The second was allowed to continue as normal.
Baseline scores were obtained for depression, anxiety, and well-being.
Prior to the break, people reported that they averaged about eight hours per week on social media.
During the study, the researchers gathered statistics on the study participants’ screen time in order to confirm that they had indeed taken a break. They found that those on a break had an average of 21 minutes of screen time throughout the week while the other group clocked in at about seven hours.
After one week, the individuals who took a break saw significant improvement in their symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as having a greater sense of well-being, compared to those who did not.
Lambert’s team writes that they would like to investigate in the future whether social media breaks can provide lasting benefits, perhaps making it a part of managing people’s mental health.
These findings especially important in the wake of the pandemic
Dr. Tonya Cross Hansel, DSW Program Director, Tulane University School of Social Work, explains that these findings are especially important in light of the pandemic.
“Mental health and overall well-being has taken a toll over the past few years. Those with preexisting conditions, experiencing grief and loss, and the healthcare workforce are particularly vulnerable,” she said.
Social media played a positive role in the pandemic for many people, she said, because it gave them ways to stay connected and practice self-care.
On the other, it has exacerbated some of the preexisting negatives, she said.
“For example, false digital identity is well known, and constant comparison to these false lives can foster sadness that one is not up to par,” she said.
She also pointed out that “social media bullying and excessive screen times can also lead to poorer mental health.”
Tips for taking a successful social media break
Hansel said that if you feel that social media is not beneficial to you or you feel your mood worsening after use, this can be an indicator that you need a break.
“Similarly if it doesn’t leave you feeling a sense of peace, hope or joy—it is time to brainstorm if there are other ways better to invest your time,” she said.
She notes that sleep problems can also be indicative of needing a break, especially if you are using social media near bedtime.
Dr. E. Alison Holman, a professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing at the University of California, Irvine, suggests checking in with your bodily sensations.
“If you are feeling tension, pain, or having trouble taking a deep breath, turn it off,” said Holman.
She further suggests doing an alternative activity that make you feel good, like listening to your favorite song or playing with your pet.
When it comes to formulating a long-term plan for dealing with any negative feelings generated by social media, Hansel said the first step is finding out the right amount of time for you to use it.
“What brings you joy from use and what are you giving up?” asks Hansel.
Once you determine this, set up a timer or some other guide that will help you set boundaries.
Next, she suggests looking at what social media does for you. If it’s how you get your news, for example, find another source.
If it’s how you stay connected with people, Hansel suggests calling your friends and family instead. If it’s about self-care, find other alternatives like exercise or a new hobby.
“Finally consider a social media fast,” said Hansel. “Sometimes complete withdrawal is the only way to figure out how it brings you joy and how it is impacting your mental health.”