Few prior studies have attempted to show that social-media use harms users’ well-being, and those that have either put participants in unrealistic situations or were limited in scope, asking them to completely forego Facebook and relying on self-report data, for example, or conducting the work in a lab in as little time as an hour.
“We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,” says Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department.
To that end, the research team, which included recent alumni Rachel Marx and Courtney Lipson and Penn senior Jordyn Young, designed their experiment to include the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates, and then collected objective usage data automatically tracked by iPhones for active apps, not those running the background.
Each of 143 participants completed a survey to determine mood and well-being at the study’s start, plus shared shots of their iPhone battery screens to offer a week’s worth of baseline social-media data. Participants were then randomly assigned to a control group, which had users maintain their typical social-media behavior, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day.
For the next three weeks, participants shared iPhone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual. With those data in hand, Hunt then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
“Here’s the bottom line,” she says. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”
Hunt stresses that the findings do not suggest that 18- to 22-year-olds should stop using social media altogether. In fact, she built the study as she did to stay away from what she considers an unrealistic goal. The work does, however, speak to the idea that limiting screen time on these apps couldn’t hurt.
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