From digital detoxes to the recent Silicon Valley fad of “dopamine fasting”, it seems more fashionable than ever to attempt to abstain from consuming digital media. Underlying all of these trends is the assumption that using digital devices — and being on social media in particular — is somehow unhealthy, and that if we abstain, we might become happier, more fulfilled people.
But is there any truth to this belief? When it comes to social media, at least, a new paper in Media Psychology suggests not. In one of the few experimental studies in the field, researchers have found that quitting social media for up to four weeks does nothing to improve our well-being or quality of life.
Many past psychological studies into social media have relied on correlational data, looking at how individual differences in social media use (or “screen time” more generally) relate to well-being. That makes sense: it’s far easier to look at existing patterns of use than to conduct a controlled experiment, particularly in a world where we are all using digital media every day. But it also makes it hard to separate out cause-and-effect — even if social media use is associated with poorer well-being, how can we be sure that already unhappy people are not simply using social media more often, for instance?
So in their new study, Jeffrey Hall and colleagues at the University of Kansas decided to add to the fairly sparse experimental literature by looking at what happens when people actively avoid using social media. The researchers assigned participants to one of five groups: one was told to simply continue using social media as normal (specifically Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram), while the others were told to abstain from all four platforms for periods of 7, 14, 21 or 28 days. The researchers set up accounts to follow each participant and check that they were not posting or engaging with other people’s posts during this time.
At the end of each day for the entire four week period, participants recorded the proportion of time they had spent doing various activities (e.g. eating, working, watching TV, using the internet and so on). They also completed short questionnaires measuring well-being, quality of life and loneliness.
After excluding those who had used social media during the days they were supposed to abstain, the researchers were left with 130 participants. They then fed all of the participants’ data into statistical models, to figure out whether there were any differences in the measures of well-being between abstinence and control days, and if so, whether these effects depended on how long people abstained for.
But the team found that there were no significant effects, regardless of how many weeks participants were off social media. “[D]ays when participants were free to use four types of social media and days when they abstained from using social media were indistinguishable in terms of end of day loneliness, affective well-being, and quality of day,” they conclude.
This finding is not entirely surprising. The results of the few other experimental studies conducted so far have been mixed: abstaining from social media (or decreasing use) has resulted in small reductions in loneliness or greater “cravings” to be back online, but also a lack of significant effects on several other measures of well-being. Taken together, these findings suggest that “correlational research that reports a negative influence of social media should be interpreted with greater scrutiny,” write the authors.
The new study is not without limitations: in particular, the sample size wasn’t huge, and the authors acknowledge that they did not have enough participants to detect any small effects that might have been present. On the other hand, if abstaining from social media does produce tiny effects that are only apparent when looking across massive samples, then those effects might have little practical relevance in the real world.
Perhaps more importantly, the researchers had no way of making sure people were not passively using social media on their abstinence days, scrolling through their Twitter or Instagram feeds without actually posting anything themselves, for example. And while the study indicates that quitting social media may generally be of little psychological benefit, it’s unclear whether certain individuals might get more out of abstaining than others.
Still, the research does suggest that panics linking social media use to poor mental health are overblown. Of course, there may be plenty of other reasons to go cold turkey on social media — but for now, it’s not clear that our psychological well-being is one of them.