Social media might be addictive, but it turns out quitting is complicated. A study out Wednesday from the UK’s Durham University asked 51 moderate to heavy social media users to stay off the apps for one week. Participants had a decrease in negative emotions and feelings including boredom, but they reported a drop in positive feelings as well. It adds to a growing body of evidence that there may be no easy fix for my specific personal problems.
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Social media is often compared to alcohol or other addictive substances, and that’s as true in academic circles as it is in popular culture. Accordingly, the researchers expected that abstinence would come with withdrawal symptoms. That’s not what happened: not only were the emotional changes a mixed bag, but going cold turkey didn’t lead to the cravings you’d expect from other more established chemical or behavioral addictions.
The results could “be consistent with the Goldilocks hypothesis of digital screen use, which posits that a moderate amount of [social media] use may be beneficial to mental well-being,” the authors wrote. If only TikTok was as nourishing as porridge.
The study gathered a group of people aged 18–25 who used social media services for a range of 30 minutes to over 9 hours a day, with a mean of nearly 3-and-a-half hours of daily screen time. After an initial baseline period, the researchers monitored participants as they stayed off social media for six days, and then followed them for another four days when they could use social media freely. People in the study were asked to fill out daily surveys and questionnaires about their mood and experience, and subjected to a number of tests to measure how social media affected their cognitive function.
Except for a few minor relapses, participants didn’t have any trouble cutting out social media. According to daily questionnaires, people saw a dip in generally negative emotions, but there was also about the same drop in generally positive emotions as well. Specific feelings that included boredom and loneliness saw a similar decrease. The various cognitive tests that measured cravings to use social media showed negligible changes after the experiment. In other words, it’s almost like people who took a week-long break from social media just had fewer feelings, in general.
The researchers hypothesized this might be because the effects of social media are nuanced. As the study points out, content on social media can trigger feelings like fear of missing out or comparing yourself to other people who seem to be doing better, but it can also lead to feelings of social approval.
“In sum, the present study indicates that abstaining or reducing [social media] use for one week is not associated with any substantial effects on affective or motivational responses,” the researchers wrote.
As always, the only thing the study can say definitively is we need to do more studies, but one thing is clear: that social media influencer who’s telling you that you need to get off social media may not have all the answers.