Decreasing Social Media Use Linked to Reduced Anxiety, Depression, Loneliness


A recent study found that college students who reduced their social media use to 30 minutes per day reported a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness after two weeks.

The study, published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, was conducted by researchers at the Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. In May,  both the American Psychological Association and the United States Surgeon General issued health advisories about the negative effects of social media on teenagers' mental health. In response to the growing concern, researchers in this study explored the impact of reducing social media use on mental health outcomes in young adults. 

The investigation involved 230 college students. Half of the students were asked to limit their social media usage to 30 minutes a day and received automated daily reminders. Participants completed a questionnaire to measure their mental health before and after the trial period, which lasted two weeks.

Results showed that, on average, those who cut down on social media significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and a fear of missing out. According to researchers, decreasing social media use was also linked to higher "positive affect" scores, which indicated that the participants had a brighter outlook on life.

"It surprised me to find that participants' wellbeing did not only improve in one dimension but in all of them. I was excited to learn that such a simple intervention of sending a daily reminder can motivate people to change their behavior and improve their social media habits," said Ella Faulhaber, a PhD student in human-computer interaction and lead author of the paper.

The study showed that even participants who went over the 30-minute limit but still cut down on their social media use showed improvements in mental health.

"The lesson here is it's not about being perfect but putting in effort, which makes a difference. I think self-limiting and paying attention are the secret ingredients, more so than the 30-minute benchmark," Faulhaber said.

Participants said that reducing their social media use was challenging in the beginning, but after a few days, they felt more productive and in tune with their lives. They also reported that they slept better and could spend more time with their friends and family in person.

According to researchers, these findings align with previous research, which suggests that tracking activities like screen time and daily steps make it easier for people to change their behaviors. However, Faulhaber acknowledged that tracking behavior is only the first step to changing it. For those trying to cut back on social media use, she recommended the following:

  1. Create awareness. Set a timer or use a built-in wellness app to see how much time you spend on social media.
  2. Give yourself grace. Recognize that it's not easy to stick to a time limit. Social media apps are designed to keep you engaged.
  3. Don't give up. Limiting social media use over time has real benefits for your daily life.

While it’s difficult to reduce time on social media, the study co-author, Douglas Gentile, PhD, professor of psychology at Iowa State, this study and ones like it indicate that it can lead to significant benefits to mental health and wellbeing.

"We live in an age of anxiety. Lots of indicators show that anxiety, depression, loneliness are all getting worse, and that can make us feel helpless. But there are things we can do to manage our mental health and wellbeing," said Gentile.