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?

social media apps on smartphone
Photo by dole777 on Unsplash
  • 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.

Mobile phone usage over time.

Kleiner Perkins

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.


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U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

The misguided history of female anatomy

From "mutilated males" to "wandering wombs," dodgy science affects how we view the female body still today.

Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • The history of medicine and biology often has been embarrassingly wrong when it comes to female anatomy and was surprisingly resistant to progress.
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