An experimental study by psychology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has shown for the first time a causal link between social media use and lower rates of well-being. While the relationship between social media and issues like depression, anxiety, and loneliness has been discussed and studied frequently in the last few years, this is the first time that a study has shown a direct causal link between the two.
Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt, Associate Director of Clinical Training in Psychology, and her colleagues at UPenn designed an experiment to test the psychological effects of letting people use social media as they usually did compared to limiting the use of these sites to a maximum of ten minutes per platform per day. First, 143 students completed surveys to measure their well-being at the start of the experiment. Then the students were randomly assigned into one of two groups who either used social media sites as usual or had their usage of the sites limited. The sites in question were Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, three of the most popular social media sites among college-aged people, and the experiment went on for three weeks.
After the three weeks were up, the students were surveyed again using the same tools to measure their well-being. These tools measured outcomes like depression, loneliness, anxiety, and that most millennial of worries, fear of missing out. The group of students who limited their social media usage showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out from the start of the experiment. In particular, people who had higher levels of depression at the start of the study showed a decrease in depressive symptoms when they limited their social media time. One subject described the experience personally: “Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks.”
While plenty have studies have looked at well-being and internet use and found that, for example, anxious people tend to have a problematic approach to internet use or that depression can be identified through social media use, this is the first study to confirm this link experimentally. It shows that it is not merely the case that depressed, anxious, or unhappy people happen to use social media more often, but rather that the act of using the sites decreases well-being. The researchers recommend limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day to improve your mood and mental health.