Cutting social media use to 30 mins per day significantly reduces depression and loneliness

Who would have thought that endlessly comparing your life to others would make you feel bad?

  • Prior research has shown that social media usage can negatively impact our mental health, but until now, very few studies have shown this experimentally.
  • A study from the University of Pennsylvania asked study participants to limit their social media usage so their resulting mental health could be measured.
  • The results tell us how to regulate our social media usage to improve our well-being.

In 2008, American adults used their mobile phones for about a half hour a day. Nearly a decade later, that number jumped up to 3.3 hours per day. To be fair, a 2008 mobile phone wouldn't hold a candle to the miniature computers we keep in our pockets, but still, the amount of time we devote to our smartphones begs the question: What is our obsession with smartphones doing to us?

Researchers have been hard at work trying to answer this question. There has been a considerable amount of prior research that's shown that frequent Facebook and Instagram users self-report higher symptoms of depression, lower self-esteem, and greater body image issues. The trouble with these studies is that they are correlational—they don't actually say whether social media and smartphone usage cause these undesirable feelings, just that the two are related.

Kleiner Perkins

Mobile phone usage over time.

That's where Melissa G. Hunt's study comes in. Published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Hunt's study examined the impact of intentionally reducing social media usage in one of the first experimental studies of its kind.

In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Today, Hunt explained that they had "set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid." Their study would examine actual usage based on the iPhone's built-in app monitoring and examine what happens to smartphone users when they reduce their social media intake, enabling them to make claims about what effect social media causes in its users

Cutting down on social media

Hunt and her team recruited 143 undergraduate students to monitor their social media usage, specifically Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. The study participants were also given a survey designed to measure a number of psychological characteristics like depression, anxiety, the fear of missing out (i.e., worrying about all the fun your peers are having without you), social support, loneliness, self-esteem, and autonomy and self-acceptance.

Students took this survey before the experiment began to establish a baseline and then several times again over the ensuing three weeks. During this time, students were either instructed to continue using social media as they typically did or to limit their time on each platform to 10 minutes per day.

With just 30 minutes of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat a day, this is a significant reduction in the amount of time many people use social media. Some studies have proposed cutting social media out entirely, but considering how much our social and professional lives require these platforms, complete abstinence doesn't seem feasible.

Our phones are making us lonely and depressed

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

After analyzing the data, Hunt concluded that "experimentally limiting social media usage on a mobile phone to 10 minutes per platform per day for a full three weeks had a significant impact on well-being." However, social media use doesn't affect all of the aspects of well-being that Hunt had looked at. Interpersonal support remained unchanged, as well as anxiety, self-esteem, and other measures.

But, said Hunt, "both loneliness and depressive symptoms declined in the experimental group," which was especially true for those students who reported feeling more depressed. The researchers measured depression using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and scoring above a 14 on the BDI marks the cut-off for clinical depression. Students who reduced their social media usage dropped from a mean of 23 to 14.5—meaning they still experienced a clinical level of depression but to a much less pronounced degree.

What's more, the students themselves also noticed how their mood had improved over the course of the experiment. One student said, "Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks."

The impact of self-monitoring

There were also some unexpected findings, too. Hunt and her team noticed that the students in both the control group and the experiment group experienced less fear of missing out and less anxiety. Hunt speculated that this was because the students were self-monitoring their social media usage, paying more attention to the time and impact these apps had on their lives.

"I was in the control group," said one student, "and I was definitely more conscious that someone was monitoring my usage. I ended up using less and felt happier and like I could focus on school and not [be as] interested in what everyone is up to."

There was also an interesting correlation between students' well-being and their estimated usage. When taking baseline measurements prior to starting the experiment, Hunt had also asked students to guess at how much time they spent on social media.

"Estimated use," she writes, "was negatively correlated with perceived social support, self-esteem, and overall well-being. […] More distressed individuals believed that they used social media more than less distressed individuals, despite the fact that there were no differences in objective use." This also has a major impact on the structure of social media studies: If study subjects self-report their social media usage, then distressed individuals might artificially inflate their social media usage, causing a false correlation.

Key takeaways

So, what can smartphone addicts do with these findings? Limiting social media use to just 10 minutes per day per platform can have drastic effects on our perceived well-being. For some, 10 minutes of Facebook a day might sound like a death sentence, but it's a small price to pay to feel happier and less lonely.

If cutting back to 10 minutes seems impossible, then at the very, least remaining conscious about our social media usage can positively affect our mood. Smartphones and social media are too ingrained in our society to just go away, but by being a bit more aware of how we use apps and what they are doing to our minds, we can at least mitigate their very worst effects.


Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
Videos
  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less