It comes as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic led to social media becoming one of the primary sources of entertainment and connection. Sources share that social media engagement increased by 61 percent during the first wave of the pandemic. While the current state of the pandemic has shifted, lock downs have been lifted and people have largely returned to work- social media usage still remains high as habits became entrenched over the past two years. A significant amount of people (25-30%) still work remotely, also lending to the potential for increased social media use as work productivity has a different rhythm while at home.
With the increase of social media use also came an increase in social anxiety and other mental health issues. Despite social media engagement with others, studies now reveal that frequent usage actually increases depression and loneliness. One study, led by Melissa G. Hunt, PhD, associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania’s psychology department, found that decreasing usage significantly reduced people’s depression and loneliness. Hunt explains, “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.”
Other studies support this concern, with many pointing to the risk of damage to people’s self image, explains Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine. “Social media perpetuates the idea that perfectionism is possible and supports the issue of confirmation bias,” Tyler said. “People see other users who appear to be perfect, who are well liked, or who have things they may not, and they start to believe some of the negative perceptions about themselves.”
Not to mention the anxiety and worry that also comes from the amount of, topics, and quality of information that we consume. With such an increase of information, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from the constant input. Feelings on the variety of topics can especially feel heavy when the social outlets we previously had at our disposal, like getting together with friends and discussing the latest news, were no longer available. One study looked at the specific topics discussed on Twitter over a period of time through the pandemic to gauge the frequency of Covid-related conversation. You can see the table below, which shows that the 8 most salient topics were all related to Covid, suggesting how much the situation impacted not only our habits but our daily mental load.
New study shows easy way to improve mental health
With all this information that confirms what many of us already suspected, the question then becomes- so what? New studies are revealing the importance of cutting back on social media usage and how thoroughly that can improve our wellness. Limiting usage alone helped decrease levels of depression and loneliness. But new research shows that reducing social media usage while also increasing physical activity has an even greater improvement on mental health.
The group of participants in the study that combined reducing social media use with physical activity had significant increases in physical activity (in addition to what they took part in for the study) and happiness and life satisfaction as well as a significant decrease in depression symptoms. So as they reduced social media usage, they found themselves less inclined to dive back into it- instead filling their time with activities that provided them opportunities for physical activity which has mental and physical benefits in itself. What this demonstrates is that reducing social media usage is as much a matter of breaking the habit as it is addressing the impact on our mental health.
“To weaken the emotional bond to social media use longitudinally, it is not enough to only decrease social media use time or to only provide people with healthier behavioral alternatives such as physical activity,” the researchers wrote. “Also, to foster the bond to physical activity longitudinally, it is not enough to only enhance the physical activity time. A combination of both interventions is important for a successful longitudinal reduction of the role social media use plays in one’s everyday life, while the meaning of physical activity increases.”
Researchers in several studies spoke to being realistic about reducing social media usage. It’s part of our lives, and it can be a positive influence in many ways. We can connect with those far from us. When reliable sources are sought out, it can help us stay informed. Whats more, it can also help bring some levity into the days that feel heaviest, especially considering all that the past two years have thrown our way.
And yet, moderation is the best way to prevent usage from getting out of hand and sway us into a mode of overuse and the accompanying downsides. Set timers for yourself, use alerts in apps that notify you of usage for the day, put your devices away once you get home, keep chargers away from the bedside so you don’t use them up until the moment you close your eyes for the night. Be deliberate about reducing your time on social media and your body and mind will thank you for it.