This shows a person surrounded by tablets and cell phones.
Young people are using social media more, and their mental health is suffering. Credit: Neuroscience News

Limiting Social Media Use Boosts Mental Health

Summary: A simple intervention, limiting daily social media use, can significantly enhance the mental health of young adults.

The two-week experiment involving 230 college students found that those who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes a day, aided by automated reminders, experienced significantly less anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Notably, they also reported a more positive affect, displaying a brighter outlook on life. The beneficial psychological effects extended even to participants who occasionally exceeded the set limit.

Key Facts:

  1. Participants who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes a day demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and fear of missing out.
  2. The study found that striving to reduce social media usage, even if occasionally exceeding the limit, still yielded positive mental health benefits.
  3. The researchers suggest this self-limiting method of reducing social media usage, which could be more practical than strict abstention, may serve as an effective intervention against rising mental health issues among young adults.

Source: Iowa State University

Last month, the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Surgeon General both issued health advisories. Their concerns and recommendations for teens, parents and policymakers addressed a mounting body of research that shows two trends are intertwined.

Young people are using social media more, and their mental health is suffering.

Researchers at Iowa State University found a simple intervention could help. During a two-week experiment with 230 college students, half were asked to limit their social media usage to 30 minutes a day and received automated, daily reminders.

They scored significantly lower for anxiety, depression, loneliness and fear of missing out at the end of the experiment compared to the control group.

They also scored higher for “positive affect,” which the researchers describe as “the tendency to experience positive emotions described with words such as ‘excited’ and ‘proud.’” Essentially, they had a brighter outlook on life.

“It surprised me to find that participants’ well-being did not only improve in one dimension but in all of them.

“I was excited to learn that such a simple intervention of sending a daily reminder can motivate people to change their behavior and improve their social media habits.” says Ella Faulhaber, a Ph.D. student in human-computer interaction and lead author of the paper.

The researchers found the psychological benefits from cutting back on social media extended to participants who sometimes exceeded the 30-minute time limit.

“The lesson here is, it’s not about being perfect but putting in effort, which makes a difference. I think self-limiting and paying attention are the secret ingredients, more so than the 30-minute benchmark,” Faulhaber states.

Douglas A. Gentile, co-author and distinguished professor of psychology, says their results fit with other research that’s grown out of kinesiology and health fields.

“Knowing how much time we spend on activities each day and making something countable makes it easier for people to change their behaviors,” he says, giving Fitbits and daily steps as an example.

Many of the participants in the ISU study commented that the first few days of cutting back were challenging. But after the initial push, one said they felt more productive and in tune with their lives. Others shared that they were getting better sleep or spending more time with people in person.

Self-limiting may be more practical

Gentile and Faulhaber point out other studies have investigated the effects of limiting or abstaining from social media. But many of the interventions require heavy supervision and deleting apps or using a special application to block or limit social media.

Like rehab for someone who’s addicted to drugs, external accountability can help some users. But it also carries a higher risk of backfiring.

“When a perceived freedom is taken away, we start resisting,” says Gentile. He adds that eliminating social media also means losing some of the benefits it can bring, like connecting with friends and family.

Faulhaber says their study extends the current research on social media and provides a practical way for people to limit their use. For anyone looking to cut back, she recommends:

  1. Create awareness. Set a timer or use a built-in wellness app to see how much time you spend on social media.
  2. Give yourself grace. Recognize that it’s not easy to stick to a time limit. Social media apps are designed to keep you engaged. 
  3. Don’t give up. Limiting social media use over time has real benefits for your daily life.

The researchers say it’s also important to be mindful of how and when we use these platforms. Future research could further explore this, along with the long-term effects from limiting social media and what people do with the time they gain.

“We live in an age of anxiety. Lots of indicators show that anxiety, depression, loneliness are all getting worse, and that can make us feel helpless. But there are things we can do to manage our mental health and well-being,” says Gentile.

Paying more attention to how much time we spend on social media and setting measurable goals can help.

Jeong Eun Lee, assistant professor of human development and family studies, contributed to the paper.

About this mental health research news

Author: Rachel Cramer
Source: Iowa State University
Contact: Rachel Cramer – Iowa State University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The Effect of Self-Monitoring Limited Social Media Use on Psychological Well-Being” by Ella Faulhaber et al. Technology Mind and Behavior


The Effect of Self-Monitoring Limited Social Media Use on Psychological Well-Being

An experimental study was conducted to investigate the effect of self-monitoring limited social media usage on psychological well-being.

After completing pretest measures, 230 undergraduate students from a large Midwestern university were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions: either limit their social media usage to 30 min a day or to use social media as usual.

After 2 weeks of limiting, the self-monitored group showed significant improvements in their psychological well-being. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear of missing out, and negative affect decreased while positive affect increased.

These results suggest that limiting social media usage may improve psychological well-being on multiple dimensions.

This study is one of the first to experimentally investigate feasible alternatives to social media use abstinence or experimenter-managed limitation.

Future studies could investigate motivations and mechanisms of social media use through qualitative explorations.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.