Ever looked at a perfectly curated Instagram feed of someone traveling in an exotic location, wearing the fanciest clothes, and going to the most exclusive parties while you’re stuck at home on a weekend with nothing to do? Or when you check on Facebook and see friends simply hanging out together. Chances are, you’ll probably feel that tinge of jealousy or perhaps a fear of missing out. You might be familiar with the experience of scrolling through your Facebook feed, only to feel like everyone else’s lives are better than yours. How a person uses social media and perceive it when comparing your life with others is telling about the platforms’ links to mental health issues.
A compelling new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has found that limiting your social media usage to 30 minutes a day can help lift depression and loneliness.
The study, published in December’s Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, is one of the first to show causation — rather than just correlation — between social media usage and mental health. In other words, this is real, people, and we should take it seriously.
For the study, researchers recruited a bunch of prime users of social media — 143 undergraduate students aged between 18 and 22 — and tested them over two semesters. One group of students was instructed to limit its time on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to just 30 minutes a day, while those in a control group continued using social media as they normally would. The participants were then asked to complete a survey to measure mood and well-being and captured screen screenshots to help determine a baseline for social-media data. For the next three weeks, participants shared screenshots to provide researchers weekly social media tallies for each individual. Researchers then took that data and looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression and loneliness.
The result? “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness,” lead researcher Melissa Hunt told Science Daily. “These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” Hunt said. “[But] some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”
As always, Science never lies. Of course, social media can’t wholly be blamed for mental health problems as several other factors may come to play, but just a simple act of lessening your time on these networking apps can make a lot of difference. By changing your habits on social media, you’re more likely to experience and feel things in a different way—making your moments feel more real as opposed to simply carving out an image to be posted online.
In any case, it’s not good to compare yourself to others who seem “better off” than you, says Anthony Robinson, a psychology student at Texas State University who conducted another study on social media use. “People tend to make themselves look better off than they really are” on social media, he said. “This is not someone’s ‘real life.’ It’s important to recognize that.”