If you are a heavy user of social media and decided that one of your New Year’s resolutions was to cut down on them to improve your emotional health, you may be in for disappointment.
A new UK study has found that users who reduced their social media activity for a week saw decreases both in positive emotions as well as in negative ones.
ust published in PLOS One, it is titled “Restricting social networking site use for one week produces varied effects on mood but does not increase explicit or implicit desires to use social networking sites: Findings from an ecological momentary assessment study.”
Digital detox mirrors quitting drugs cold turkey, researchers find
Its authors, Drs. Michael Wadsley and Niklas Ihssen of the psychology department of Durham University wrote that recent research on the addictive potential of modern technologies such as smartphones, the Internet, or social networking sites (SNSs) has suggested that emotional and motivational changes connected to the sudden discontinuation of using the technology mirror the aversive consequences seen when drug use is ceased abruptly.
This has been observed even in moderate users and interpreted as a manifestation of withdrawal – an important marker of physical dependence in substance-use disorders. On the other hand, a growing literature emphasizes the positive effects of “digital detox” on mental health and well-being.
Using a battery of affective and motivational measures – both explicit and implicit – the new study tracked the effects of a week of significantly reduced SNS use in 51 moderate-to-heavy users. While the data showed some abstinence-related decreases in negative affect and boredom, they also showed a reduction in positive affect. These changes occurred regardless of problematic or addictive use behaviors.
Importantly, restricting SNS use for a week had no effect on implicit measures of related motivation issues such as approach biases, time distortion, and effort expenditure for SNS access, nor did it influence explicit cravings and reactions to cues.
The findings did suggest, however, that restricting SNS use has nuanced and potentially offsetting effects on well-being. These could arise because use reduction may concurrently remove experiences that trigger negative emotions like upward social comparisons or the Fear of Missing Out, but also those that elicit positive emotions like social approval.
There was no evidence to suggest that limiting SNS use is linked to clear positive effects on well-being.
You are likely to ‘relapse’ back into social media
Instead of a generally negative or positive impact on mood, the authors observed partially opposing effects, with a reduction of positive affect from the time of baseline to the post-intervention period and a simultaneous reduction of negative affect and boredom during the intervention. Importantly, reduced SNS use did not increase or decrease implicit motivation to use them.
Analyses of screen time data showed that despite being willing to abstain from SNSs for one week, the vast majority of participants struggled against abstinence, with 86.5% “relapsing” at least once.
“Such difficulties in maintaining abstinence despite initial willingness could be argued to be indicative of the addictive properties of SNSs. Yet on the other hand, almost all participants were able to significantly reduce their SNS use during the intervention period,” Wadsley and Ihssen wrote. This suggested that users maintain some degree of control over their SNS behaviors.
“Furthermore, this reduction in SNS use had no consistent undesirable effects on emotional well-being, which is contrary to expected effects during the experience of withdrawal,” the paper said.
“Given that SNSs are now so ingrained into normal everyday life and are often used to carry out essential communications, it might not be helpful to interpret failures to comply with the abstinence instruction as ‘relapses’ – especially since most participants were able to substantially cut down their SNS use,” they wrote.
Thus, their findings suggested that most SNS users – even those with more excessive or problematic use – did not tend to experience psychological withdrawal-like effects when voluntarily limiting such use for a week.
“It may be that participants developed strategies for limiting their SNS use during the intervention phase and that [they] continued to implement some of these strategies when normal use was resumed,” the authors suggested. “Therefore, temporary periods of restricted SNS use might be beneficial in helping to reduce use in the long-term.”