15 minute reduction in social media use improves both mental and physical health

Young people asked to spend less time on social media sites experienced fewer colds, flu and depressive symptoms

14th March 2023 about a 3 minute read
“These data demonstrate that, when people reduce their social media use, their lives can improve in many ways – including benefits for their physical health and psychological well-being.” Professor Phil Reed, chair in psychology, Swansea University

Reducing social media use by 15 minutes a day can lead to better physical and mental health, new research has found.

Over a period of three months, three researchers from Swansea University examined the effects on the physical health and psychological wellbeing of participants asked to spend 15 minutes fewer a day using social media. The study, published in the Journal of Technology in Behavior Science, was conducted by Professor Phil Reed, Tegan Fowkes, and Mariam Khela from the university’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The outcomes were compared to those of people who were not asked to reduce their usage or were explicitly asked to do something other than use social media during those 15 minutes. Altogether, 50 people (33 female and 17 male) took part in the study.

Participants were recruited through advertisements posted online across six universities in the UK. They had to be between 18 and 30 years old, with a social networking application, such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, on their smartphone, and a method of recording screentime.

The results showed that the group asked to reduce their social media use had an average 15% improvement in immune function, including fewer colds, flu, warts, and verrucae, a 50% improvement in sleep quality and 30% fewer depressive symptoms. These improvements were significantly greater than that experienced by the other two groups, neither of which showed any changes in those measures.

Those asked to reduce their usage ended up doing so by about 40 minutes a day, rather than the 15 minutes requested, while there was a daily 10-minute increase for the group asked not to do anything. The group asked to do something other than social media increased their usage by approximately 25 minutes a day. The researchers find it hard to explain the reason for the increase, but suggest that the “manipulation of suggesting activities was relatively weak, and a stronger intervention to reinforce these activities would be beneficial” or that  “being directly instructed to so something may have developed a degree of countercontrol in the participants, who went against the intervention.”

Reduced feelings of loneliness

The authors report that the findings demonstrated that “over a three-month period, relative to a group which did not change social media usage, a group reducing social media activity by 15 min a day reported less social media dependence, and improved general health and immune functioning, as well as reduced feelings of loneliness and depression.” They note that the findings “replicated those previously reported in studies using prolonged periods of reduced activity.”

It is not clear, the authors say, whether the relationship between a reduction in in social media and better physical wellbeing is direct, or whether it is “mediated by changes in wellbeing variables (such as depression)…or by other factors such as physical activity.”

Professor Phil Reed,  lead author on the study, said: “These data demonstrate that, when people reduce their social media use, their lives can improve in many ways – including benefits for their physical health and psychological well-being.”

He added: “It remains to be established whether the relationship between social media use and health factors is a direct one, or whether changes in well-being variables, such as depression, or other factors, such as an increase in physical activity, mediate it.

“That the group asked to reduce their usage and do something different did not show these benefits suggests that campaigns to make people healthier could avoid telling people how to use their time. They can resent it.

“Instead, give them the facts, and let them deal with how they make the reduction, rather than telling them to do something more useful – it may not be effective.”

FCC Insight

The findings that reduced social media use can lead to improved mental wellbeing support earlier, similar findings, and are perhaps not surprising. The improvement in physical wellbeing is more unexpected, however, and harder to explain – though as the authors suggest, perhaps participants engaged in more physical activity, or perhaps the improved mental wellbeing had an impact on physical wellbeing. This was a very small study, however, so perhaps we should be cautious about over-extrapolating from the findings.