As someone who follows tech and productivity news for work, I've noticed there are a few research conclusions that come up so regularly I am surprised scientists even bother to continue studying these subjects. That naps are good for productivity and humans are happier and healthier when they spend time in nature are two prime examples.
A recent blog post by computer science professor and author Cal Newport reminded me of another topic in this genre. How many studies exactly do people need to be convinced that social media tends to make us miserable?
I've lost count of the number of columns I've written about some study concluding social media use tends to make us anxious and depressed (not to mention a ton more offering anecdotal evidence). But if you found all that previous research unconvincing, Newport highlights yet another new paper using the gold standard of study design--a randomized controlled trial--to come to the same conclusion: If you use less social media, your brain will probably thank you.
A clear-as-day conclusion about mental health and social media
The problem with many previous studies on the mental health effects of social media is that almost all rely on correlation. Researchers look at the mental health of a big bunch of people who use a lot of social media and a big bunch of people who use less and compare them.
Studies like this can be bigger or smaller, more or less rigorous, but they all suffer from the same fundamental issue. Maybe people who use a ton of social media use it because they were anxious and depressed to start with. In that case, tons of time online is the symptom, not the cause of mental distress. Or maybe these groups differ in other hidden ways. Despite researchers' best efforts to tease out these issues, some questions always remain.
The new study highlighted by Newport and published recently in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking avoids these issues. Rather than observing existing social media behavior, the researchers took 154 study subjects and randomly assigned half to quit social media for a week and half to carry on as normal with their online habits.
Because the two groups are picked randomly, the only relevant difference between them should be whether they took a break from social media (the researchers checked screen usage stats to keep participants honest). This makes causation a lot clearer. If the quitters are more or less miserable after the social media-free week, then social media is pretty clearly the reason. That's why this is known as the gold standard of study design.
What did the researchers find? Here's the bottom line, according to Newport: "At the end of this week, the researchers found 'significant between-group differences' in well-being, depression, and anxiety, with the intervention group faring much better on all three metrics. These results held even after control for baseline scores, as well as age and gender."
He adds, "The researchers further found that they could obtain smaller, but still significant improvements in depression and anxiety by having users simply reduce the time they spend on Twitter and TikTok. The biggest effects, however, came from full abstention."
Will you change your behavior?
It's true this study only looks at short-term effects, but that caveat aside, it seems to offer about as clear a conclusion as you could possibly ask for. So how many studies do you need to see before you actually take action and adjust your habits accordingly?
If you're already convinced you need to dial back your social media use but are struggling to implement your intentions, both Newport and other researchers have offered detailed advice on how to find a healthier balance when it comes to social media.