Why a social media detox may not be as good for you as you think – new research

Whether you’re an influencer, an occasional poster, or just a lurker, you probably spend more time than you’d like on social media. Worldwide, people of working age with Internet access now spend more than 2.5 hours a day on social platforms such as Instagram, Facebook or X (Twitter).

Social media use can become excessive and problematic when it interferes with school or work, causes conflict in your relationships or damages your mental health. Although it is not formally recognized as a mental health disorder, some scientists also argue that the problematic use of social media is an “addiction”.

When you find yourself checking and scrolling through your accounts excessively, you may decide it’s time to go on a digital “diet” or “detox” – cutting your usage dramatically or even avoiding social media completely for a few days. But, as our new research shows, this approach can reduce the positive effects of social media as much as the negative ones. And in fact, we were surprised at how little the participants in our study missed social media when we asked them to cut it.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series of issues that affect those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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In a recent study, we asked participants to do just that. As 51 people tried to abstain from social media for a week, we tracked their behavior and experiences through surveys sent to their phones throughout the day, and computer work in a controlled environment.

We found that only a minority of participants abstained completely. However, most were able to reduce their use substantially, from three to four hours a day on average before the study, to only half an hour. Even after the abstinence period, the participants’ daily social media use remained well below the level seen before the study.

Impact of curbing social media use

However, in contrast to some previous digital detox studies, we did not observe an improvement in the well-being of our participants. On the contrary, they reported a reduction in positive emotions during the abstinence period.

Social media provides powerful and quantifiable social rewards through likes, shares and gaining followers. While it also offers quick bursts of fun and entertainment, research shows that it’s often these social rewards that drive compulsive social media checking.

Humans are social animals – feeling part of a group, being accepted and receiving praise are universal needs. Social media is a convenient and accessible tool to satisfy these needs anytime and anywhere we want, and provides a connection that may be missing in a remote work world.

But these social rewards can quickly turn into unpleasant experiences. Receiving likes can turn into chasing likes, and a feeling of disappointment if your post does worse than expected. Seeing the lives of others can lead to fomo (fear of missing out) or envy, and in the worst cases, users can be victims of unpleasant or hateful comments.

To this end, we also observed a reduction in negative emotions when the participants cut the use of social media. They felt a little less miserable, sad and crazy during the study.

In general, abstaining from social media seems to remove both positive and negative emotions—for some people, the net effect on well-being may be zero.

Can you be addicted to social media?

Perhaps the most enlightening finding was how little our participants missed social media. They did not report an increase in desires, urges or cravings to check their accounts during the study period, despite the dramatic reduction in screen time.

It appears that curbing social media use does not cause “withdrawal” symptoms as is sometimes seen when stopping drug use. With this in mind, we urge you to be cautious in using terms like “addiction” to talk about social media use.

Framing the use of social media in terms of addiction risks demonizing the technology and pathologizing normal behavior. Labeling users as “addicts” can lead to stigma and ignore other psychological problems that may underlie excessive use behaviors. In our view, the term addiction should be reserved to describe a disease, which involves lasting changes in the reward system of the brain.

A smartphone placed in a small basket on a table, in the background a woman is sitting on a chair reading
Consider being more careful about how you use social media instead of going cold turkey.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Ultimately, social media has both positive and negative aspects, and it may just be the negative parts that people feel they need to detox from.

Perhaps a better way to think about improving your relationship with social media is similar to how you think about improving your diet. Food and social media satisfy natural desires – energy for the former and social contact for the latter.

In both cases, you need to know your limits and prioritize healthy rewards. This may mean changing your view of how connected or liked you really need to be, and unfollowing accounts or deleting applications that make you feel bad.

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Image Source : theconversation.com

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