New experiment findings suggest that limiting social media usage reduces depression

All things considered, the notion that social media could be detrimental to our mental or emotional well-being is not original. But researchers haven’t actually done much to scientifically measure the effects. Most of the evidence for these theories comes from surveys and correlative studies, which might be interesting but hardly confirm any facts about social media’s mental impact. However, earlier this week Penn State released a new experimental study that draws a direct connection between social media use and debilitating mental states.

The results from an experimental study are far more useful than those received in a survey or correlative study. A simple survey may ask people to self-report on whether Instagram makes them unhappy, and a correlative study might find that people who say they use social media more are likely to have issues with depression.

However, an experimental study like the one conducted by Penn state released results from an experiment, where the participant group in the study is controlled by the researchers. Melissa Hunt and Penn State’s psychology department are one of the few do conduct an experimental study in this field, despite a lot of interest in its subject matter. There were only two other experimental studies surrounding this question, and both focused specifically on the effects of Facebook.

For three weeks, Hunt’s team monitored the social media usage of 143 students. The students in the study were asked to either limit their social media use to only 10 minutes per app (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram) every day, or continue using it as they usually would. To have some information on the students, their health was monitored for a little while before the experimental period began and assessed on a weekly basis for depression and other mental issues. They monitored each student’s social media use through an iOS battery use screen, which shows app usage.

The results were released in a recent issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. When the students were requested to reduce their social media usage, they experienced significantly higher reductions in loneliness and depression than those who continued their usage at the same rate. Both groups reported decreased feelings of anxiety and fear, which suggests that self-monitoring does have some value. The researchers suggested that users should limit their social media use to about 30 minutes a day, claiming it would lead to a huge improvement in their well-being.

Although confident about their findings, the researchers acknowledge the limitations of their study. They suggest other colleagues in their field look at the results of a more diverse participant population. In addition, longer experiment times and follow-up experiments with the same participants might help validate the study’s findings even further.

Although they say the 30-minute limit is a convenient guideline, the team insists that it is not the “correct” amount. It’s possible that half or twice that time would yield similar or better results. 

Hunt says:

“it may be that there is an optimal level of use similar to a dose response curve that could be determined. In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”