Study Hacks Blog

Taking a Break from Social Media Makes you Happier and Less Anxious

May 16th, 2022 · 20 comments

In my writing on technology and culture I try to be judicious about citing scientific studies. The issues involved in our ongoing wrangling with digital innovations are subtle and often deeply human. Attempts to exactly quantify what we’re gaining and losing through our screens can at times feel disconcertedly sterile.

All that being said, however, when I come across a particularly well-executed study that presents clear and convincing results, I do like to pass it along, as every extra substantial girder helps in our current scramble to build a structure of understanding.

Which brings me to a smart new paper, written by a team of researchers from the University of Bath, and published last week in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. It’s titled “Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety,” and it caught my attention, in part, because of its parsimonious design.

As I reported last fall in The New Yorker, a problem with existing research on social media and mental health is that it often depends on analyzing large existing data sets. Finding strong social psychological signals in these vast collections of measurements is tricky, as outcomes can be quite sensitive to exactly what questions are asked.

This new paper avoids these issues by deploying a gold-standard for studying human impacts: the randomized control trial. The researchers gathered 154 volunteers with a mean age of 29.6 years old. They randomly divided them into an intervention group, which was asked to stop using social media for one week (with a focus, in particular, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok), and a control group which was given no instructions.

At the end of this week, the researchers found “significant between-group differences” in well-being, depression, and anxiety, with the intervention group faring much better on all three metrics. These results held even after control for baseline scores, as well as age and gender.

The researchers further found that they could obtain smaller, but still significant improvements in depression and anxiety by having users simply reduce the time they spend on Twitter and TikTok. The biggest effects, however, came from full abstention.

Caveat emptor, I don’t know these researchers, nor have I run this work by the experts I trust in the field, so I can’t vouch without equivocation for the strength of its findings. But given the simple study design and the clear effects it revealed, the message here seems to be clear: social media hurts mental health. Which motivates an obvious follow-up question: Why do we insist on still shrugging our shoulders and continuing to treat the use of these tools like some sort of unavoidable civic and professional necessity?

20 thoughts on “Taking a Break from Social Media Makes you Happier and Less Anxious

  1. Shreya says:

    This does not surprise me at all. I cut out all social media from my life after I read Deep Work in 2016, and saved myself a truckload of anxiety in the intervening years. My friends occasionally forward twitter threads to me, and I’m struck by how intense and opinionated the most popular ones seem to be. It’s as though they are designed to get a rise out of you and are largely devoid of nuance.

    On an unrelated note, are there any managers here from the tech / finance industry who follow Cal’s deep work philosophy? I’d love to trade notes on how you apply his principles to people management. If you’re interested in chatting about it, then please email me at shreya.vora10@gmail.com!

  2. Jr says:

    Confirms the results of Amy Cuddys research discussed in her book Presence.

    1. Nathan says:

      How so?

  3. Anne says:

    Because it’s a culturally accepted activity that doesn’t make you fat, drunk, or stoned. But mostly because of FOMO.

  4. Evidence that people are better off without social media, or at least they’re happier. So is it worth trading mental health for the few benefits of social media, especially when it’s easy to point out that “connecting” and “communicating” digitally can and does still occur outside social media: email, texting phone numbers, blogging, newsletters, stand-alone messaging/group services (maybe Discord for example, though its very name implies a negative towards mental health, maybe Zoom?). And then there’s non-digital means for these too.

    Social Media may be the norm, but it’s not necessary.

    When trying to show there are digital alternatives or equivalents to social media, even if examples are scarce or weak, rather than resign to using social media, it should be noted that if social media vanished today, both existing and new tools (hopefully not algorithm-based ones) to replace it would quickly arise.

    Also, anecdotal evidence: I created my Twitter account in 2012…and after ten years, I deleted it this April. (I also logged off Facebook and turned off most notifications for everything.) In the 3+ weeks since, I definitely feel better, calmer in mind. I’ve been more present for my family, and I’ve been able to have more clarity and focus on other pursuits. My brain feels less…frazzled. I plan to keep at it.

  5. Geoff says:

    Very interesting study.

    I like that the researches noted, the next logical step is to examine these effects longitudinally.

    It would be very interesting to see if there some sort of a ‘novelty’ effect.

    The challenge of a study of this nature is that the cannot be blinded, in principle, becuase the participants know whether they’re giving up social media, or not. So it’s impossible to rule out the effect this has, which is particularly challenging when it comes to psychological traits such as well-being and mood.

    It’s not a bad sample size, but ideally it would be good to test these results on a much larger sample too.

  6. Thomas Turner says:

    Interesting stuff!

    One question that pops into my head though: have the researchers thought about and attempted to control for or mitigate the placebo effect? In medical RCT’s the control group would typically be given a sugar pill or some other fake intervention.

    I can imagine that being _told_ to stop using social media might lead to expectations of a change in wellbeing that might come through in self-reported mental health surveys.

    1. Melanie Moore says:

      This effect might be coming from a previous knowledge about social media and its harms–as well as possibly (I’m guessing) your own experience. Meaning, if I were to be asked this question, I would immediately think: oh yes, this will make me feel much better. BUT if you asked my daughter, or my daughter-in-law– or especially my high-school nieces? They would absolutely assume their lives would be much less happy and their mental health would crash if they were off social media for a week. (I have other children who have heard my drumbeat and have minimalized–and my oldest has done so out of outrage at the harm to society, so they would be predisposed). But judging from what I see in the world, very few people believe this would be a good thing.

  7. Rambhakta says:

    Most tech tools can be used expansively or contractively – meaning, they can expand awareness by the changes the individual style of use fosters in body, heart, will, mind, and soul. This is the measuring stick of Eastern teachings – which aren’t “philosophy,” the study of wisdom, but rather research into “what works.” What actions produce happiness and decrease suffering. Turns out to be a very long yardstick indeed. I can use my time at the computer to watch a YT video on setting up my new Canon to take pictures that will inspire, amuse, and uplift. Or I can use it to harass someone on FB and TWIT. What counts is the effect on the individual – me. Tech and media become harmful when they contract my awareness – when they put my awareness to sleep somewhere in the back-brain rather than engaging me in creative, productive, expansive ways. But then, the tech isn’t the decider; I am.

  8. Nic Loh says:

    One of the most glaring limitations is that the research subjects are not blinded to whether they are in the intervention or in the control group. Nevertheless, I can understand for all practical purposes that it would be impossible to achieve subject-side blinding in the evaluation of this particular intervention.

    Though this would almost certainly suggest that the magnitude of the study’s claimed benefits has been overstated, I am confident that elimination of social media use still does lead to reduced anxiety and other benefits (albeit at a reduced magnitude of change).

  9. Thank you Cal.

    now I can convince myself and my friends that reducing our time on SM make us happier and that is backed by science! ?

  10. Thank you, Cal. Great findings, as always.

    Being able to take a break from social media is one of the nobler goals my team and I have set out to change. We are not fully there yet, but committed to take on this challenge.

    Hope I will be able to report some positive progress soon!

  11. Ben Clavey says:

    Thanks for sharing!

    One point I would make is about your claim that if the findings are robust, which you’ve obviously caveated heavily, it indicates social media is harmful. I don’t think you can make that claim from this paper only that abstaining from social media is helpful you can’t claim this shows evidence for the inverse.

    To take your argument to a ridiculous extreme for illustrative purposes, no one would suggest a study showing how effective ibuprofen was for headaches would suggest headaches are caused by ibuprofen deficiency.

    To be clear I’m not saying that claim isn’t true. My opinion is “ it probably does but… it’s complicated” I’m just saying my interpretation of what this paper shows.

  12. Yusuf Nasir Ahmad says:

    Well, I am a fan of Dr. Cal. I have read Deep Work severally. It motivates me a lot.

    I have just decided to back off social media.

    Let’s see how far I can go. However, I really want to replace my time with something very productive. So I have started a Data Science class.

  13. ?smail says:

    Hi Cal ,
    I have a question . Do you writing a book is currently?

  14. Alex Elconin says:

    This is a super relevant claim for students and is a problem I am trying to address. I am recent grad of UM who experienced how daunting it has become to meet new people and am trying to solve the problem with my startup Dabl.

    Dabl is a free friending app focused on connecting people individually. Approaching this generation of people heads-down, earbuds-in, and disconnected from those around them has never felt more daunting. We believe the world needs technology to bring us together, not divide us. Dabl makes approaching people easy and comfortable by focusing on what you have in common, putting the emphasis back on the awesome people around you.

    We are really interested in getting student feedback and this blog post really highlighted how poorley platforms like this are being used today

  15. Geoff says:

    Anecdotally I have thrown in the towel on Facebook and it has been a couple of months. There is still some FOMO, but that is largely outweighed by the fact that I’m no longer being blasted with advertising or being forced to read about and react to the “event of the social media moment” such as the recent dust-up over Roe v Wade or the school shootings in Texas. I am still free to ignore these things as I please, or pay attention to them if I want to, but now the decision rests with me and not some faceless algorithm. My attention is not for sale any longer, and I don’t think I’m going back.

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