Study finds less social networking, better mental health

University students who limited their use of social networks to around 30 minutes a day afterward performed better on tests measuring anxiety, depression, loneliness and fear of missing out, US researchers reported.

Other tests showed that they apparently approached life more optimistically, according to the study published in the journal Technology Mind and Behavior.

Mental health benefits were seen even in participants who sometimes exceeded the 30-minute daily limit.

The study really helps to demonstrate that reducing the time spent on social networks is responsible for improving young people’s psychological well-being, according to Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick, a Université de Sherbrooke expert who holds the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Use of Digital Media.

“We’re going to manipulate kids’ media habits a bit, we’re going to ask kids to self-regulate their habits,” she said. “Then we don’t intervene, we let them do what they’re used to doing. (That way), you can really support cause-and-effect relationships. I think that’s why this study is so valuable.”

Before the study began, the subjects spent an average of nearly three hours and thirty minutes on social networks every day, mainly Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook. TikTok was the most popular app, with an average usage of 95 minutes per day.

Around half of the participants had moderate or high symptoms of anxiety; 59 per cent had moderate or high symptoms of depression; and 44 per cent reported high feelings of loneliness.

The experiment involved 230 students at Iowa State University. One hundred of them were given a daily reminder for two weeks not to spend more than 30 minutes a day on social networks.

Many of the subjects reported that “weaning” was difficult at first, but that they felt more productive and more in touch with their own lives. They also began to spend more face-to-face time with those around them.

Other studies that have sought to limit young people’s use of social networks have used strategies that are more “invasive” for the participant, the authors of the new study point out, such as installing applications to monitor screen time or deleting social networking applications altogether.

In this case, they continued, they wanted to test whether an approach that made the young person responsible could prove effective in improving his or her mental health.

“These results indicate that self-monitoring of limited social network use may be a practical intervention to improve psychological well-being,” they wrote. “It is still notable that, without requiring total abstinence from social networks, encouraging limited use through a daily email reminder can indeed reduce the negative impact on psychological well-being.”

It is indeed “very interesting to use a more empowering practice” instead of external regulation or imposing limits, Fitzpatrick said.

Research has previously shown that young people are well aware that they spend too much time online, and this worries them, she added.

“So we don’t need to use a moralizing approach, we don’t need to necessarily use restrictions,” said the researcher. “We can trust young people. They’re not docile in all this, they make decisions, they think about their mental health and they think about their digital habits. So it’s really worth using this kind of strategy where young people are actively involved in establishing their own digital balance.”

The crucial aspect of this experiment, stressing the American researchers, is not whether or not the young person succeeded in limiting their use of social networks to thirty minutes a day: the crucial aspect is that the participants were trying to limit their use. The intervention thus proved effective even for those who exceeded the permitted limit.

The researchers conclude by saying that future studies should look at how young people use the time they no longer devote to social networking, to further investigate the link between these activities and their mental health.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on June 15, 2023.