A Woman Sitting on Her Luggage
Source: Timur Weber/Pexels
Tom Holland, the popular star of Spider-Man, recently announced on his Instagram account that he is taking a break from social media for the sake of his mental health. Others have opted for such sabbaticals. Singer and actress Selena Gomez disclosed in an April interview that she had stepped away for four and a half years. She reported that it “was the best decision that I’ve ever made for my mental health.” Gomez claims, “It has changed my life completely. I am happier, I am more present, I connect more with people.”
A growing body of research links a break from social media (SM) to better mental health. Randomized controlled studies indicate that SM is a causal factor contributing to poorer emotional health. One study at the University of Bath (Lambert et al., 2022) demonstrated that a one-week hiatus from SM led to significant improvements in well-being and reduced depression and anxiety. Another experiment at the University of Pennsylvania (Hunt et al., 2018) found that limiting social media to 10 minutes per day for three weeks decreased loneliness and depression.
Sounds simple—don’t have the time or money for a stress-reducing vacation to improve your mood? Just sign off your social media accounts for a week and feel happier, more grounded, and less anxious, depressed, and lonely.
Why is taking a break or even reducing time spent on social media so problematic for some people?
Social media is omnipresent. Like junk food, when you try to eat more healthfully, it is everywhere. The alerts, pings, and news flashes grab your attention and lure you into consuming them. Marketers, influencers, and developers spend countless hours designing SM programs that sell products and services.
Additionally, access is effortless. It’s easy to tumble into your favorite social media platform. It takes more energy to walk to your freezer and spoon down a half-pint of ice cream than to swipe open your favorite SM account. The platforms may be used passively for instant gratification with ostensibly negligible risk (no calories involved!). When you are bored, sign in to entertain yourself and watch the latest TikTok challenge. When you don’t feel like tackling your to-do list, sign in to a newsfeed to distract yourself and track the latest trends in fitness, music, or movies.
Is it surprising that the University of Bath study revealed that participants, on average, spent up to 9 hours per week browsing SM sites?
Should you give up social media completely? Social media has positive aspects. You can catch up and connect with folks who may be remote, hear of local, national, and international news and learn about unfolding events, and discover content that is useful, interesting, humorous, or entertaining.
How do you use social media to your advantage without allowing it to use you?
How do you determine if it is negatively impacting your mental health? The key is to use SM more mindfully, intentionally, and less addictively:
1. Determine which SM channels negatively impact your mood. After signing off a site, rate your mood on a scale from -3 to +3, where -3 is very negative, +3 is very positive, and 0 is no change in your mood.
2. Quantify how much time you spend on the sites that negatively impact your mood. Make your own daily log or download a social media app tracker.
3. Ask how you will use the freed-up extra hours. Much like any prized vacation—make a plan.
- Is there an area in your life that is important to you but where you feel a bit dissatisfied? Consider the domains in your life—personal, interpersonal, career, leisure, or spiritual—that may benefit from this extra time.
- What small but somewhat effortful action step could you take to move towards what is significant to you rather than slipping onto SM? Consider an area where stretching yourself offline might make you feel a bit more satisfied. For example, in that found time, would you meditate, meet a colleague for coffee, phone an old friend or family member, practice a second language, tutor a child, or try a new recipe?
- Make a list of these offline activities that have the potential to give you a feeling of pleasure or mastery.
4. Before signing on to SM:
- Ask, “Is turning to SM at this instant a choice or a habit?”
- Review your list and choose an option that is a tad demanding but in keeping with what you value.
5. Keep a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006) as you challenge yourself to replace SM use with substitute activities aligned with what is significant to you. A growth mindset accepts that exploring alternative pursuits will require effort and may even feel a bit risky. Difficulty is expected as you discover what activities foster your emotional fitness. Improving your ability to maintain your emotional health is a lifelong undertaking.