Experiment finds limiting social media use can reduce mental health issues in distressed youth

A recent study published in Psychology of Popular Media provides evidence that cutting down social media usage can improve mental health in young adults experiencing emotional distress. The research shows that limiting social media screen time to one hour per day over three weeks resulted in decreased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fear of missing out (FoMO), alongside improved sleep quality.

Adolescence and young adulthood are critical periods for mental health. These years are marked by significant social, physical, emotional, and brain development. Unfortunately, they also coincide with a high vulnerability to mental health disorders. Data suggest that about 20% of youth are diagnosed with a mental disorder annually, with depression and anxiety being the most prevalent. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, around 36% of Canadian youth aged 18 to 24 met clinical thresholds for major depressive disorder, and 23% for generalized anxiety disorder.

Simultaneously, social media has become a central aspect of young people’s lives. Over 81% of Canadian youth report using social media for at least two hours daily, with most of this usage happening on smartphones. This constant connectivity raises concerns about its psychological impacts, as evidence suggests a correlation between heavy social media use and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The researchers conducted their new study to address the limitations of previous research, which often relied on cross-sectional designs and self-reported data. They aimed to investigate whether reducing social media use could causally affect mental health outcomes in a sample of youth already experiencing emotional distress.

“My colleague Gary Goldfield had been following research showing that as teens and young adults have become more connected to their smartphones and social media in particular, rates of anxiety and depression in this age group has been rising,” explained study author Chris Davis, a professor of psychology at Carleton University and head of the Stress and Coping Lab.

“Many people interpreted this correlation as evidence that excessive social media use was harmful to the mental health of teens and young adults. But recognizing that this correlation between time spent on social media and mental health issues does not tell us anything about what is causing what, he determined that a better test of whether excessive use of social media was harmful was to conduct an experiment.”

The experiment involved 220 undergraduate students enrolled in introductory psychology courses at a Canadian university. They had to meet specific eligibility criteria: regular social media use (at least two hours per day), owning and using a smartphone, being between 17 and 25 years old, and experiencing at least two symptoms of depression or anxiety.

The study began with a one-week baseline period where all participants used social media as usual. Following this, the participants were randomly assigned to either the intervention group or the control group. Those in the intervention group were instructed to reduce their social media use to no more than one hour per day for three weeks.

To monitor compliance, participants were required to submit daily screenshots of their social media usage from their smartphones. They received daily reminder emails and positive reinforcement for adhering to the social media limit. In contrast, the control group continued their usual social media habits but also submitted daily usage screenshots.

The researchers used various validated measures to assess mental health outcomes. Depression symptoms were measured using the revised 10-item Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale, while anxiety symptoms were assessed with the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale. Fear of missing out (FoMO) was evaluated using a 10-item questionnaire, and sleep duration was tracked through self-reported bedtimes and wake-up times.

Participants in the intervention group, who successfully reduced their social media use to around one hour per day, showed notable improvements in mental health. Depression symptoms decreased by an average of 2.36 points, and anxiety symptoms were reduced by 2.35 points in this group.

“What we found is that those who were asked to cut down to one hour per day (even though many did not consistently meet this goal) showed significant improvement in their mental health and reported more sleep per night than the use-as-normal control group,” Davis told PsyPost. “While this doesn’t necessarily indicate that excessive social media use causes mental health problems in young adults, it does suggest that cutting back on time spent on social media can improve mental health.”

“A couple of key points to keep in mind, though: our participants were – from the outset – open to the idea of cutting back on their social media screen time. There has to be that initial interest. Second, there were no penalties for failing to meet the goal of one hour/day. We encouraged people to keep trying even if they failed on the previous day.”

“Participants didn’t always meet the goal of 1 hour, but they did cut back considerably (one of the graphs in our paper shows the mean daily time on social media for each of the two groups). There is nothing magical about 1 hour of screentime, but it is a target that is specific and achievable; it allows people to stay connected to friends and family while not getting sucked into hours of scrolling.”

Additionally, the researchers observed a significant reduction in FoMO and an increase in sleep duration by approximately 30 minutes per night among those who successfully reduced their social media use.

“I expected that those asked to cut down their time on social media would report an increase in FoMO relative to the use-as-normal control group,” Davis said. “In fact, we found that this (cutting down) group showed less FoMO at the end of the study compared to both their initial level and relative to the control group. It may be that when they were first asked to cut down their social media use, they experienced some FoMO but as time went on, they realized that they were not missing out on stuff.”

“They may have realized that there are other ways to stay connected with friends and family – such as face-to-face interactions, or Facetime calls. I was also surprised that we saw that the experimental (cutting down) group reported increases in sleep relative to the control group. This is important, since we know that getting enough sleep is key to maintaining and improving mental health.”

But as with any study, there are caveats to consider. The intervention lasted only three weeks, and it remains unclear whether these benefits would persist over a longer period. The study also relied on participants’ self-reported adherence to social media limits, which, despite daily reminders, may not perfectly reflect actual usage.

“I should add that we are not saying that social media is bad for mental health,” Davis explained. “Our sample was limited to young adults who had at least a few symptoms of depression or anxiety, were heavy users of social media, and who were willing to consider cutting back on their social media screen time. Also, our study did not include a long-term follow-up. We don’t know whether the benefits of cutting back continued beyond day 28, or whether participants asked to cut down continued to limit their time on social media after the study.”

Future research could explore longer intervention periods and consider additional factors that might influence the relationship between social media use and mental health. “For instance, when people cut back on social media screen time, do they replace this time with more face-to-face interactions or with other health-promoting activities?” Davis said. “Another possibility is that when one limits one’s time on social media, one becomes more task-focused on social media and spend less time passively scrolling or getting caught up in things that cause stress or anxiety.”

“We are also examining if reducing social media improves mental health through reduced social comparisons,” added Goldfield. “Preliminary analysis shows it doesn’t, but that could be due the measure we used, so it is premature to conclude social comparisons are not an important mechanism. Stay tuned for more papers from this study in the future on mechanisms and which types of youth benefit most.”

The study, “Limiting Social Media Use Decreases Depression, Anxiety, and Fear of Missing Out in Youth With Emotional Distress: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” was published online on April 22, 2024.

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