Should You Take A Break From Social Media? Psychologists Reveal An Unlikely Suggestion
Social media can be a legitimate way to relax and connect.
Right up there with “eat your vegetables” and “exercise daily,” “keep off social media” has become a tenet of wellness. But with the proliferation of these addictive sites has come the proliferation of self-control methods, including the age-old detox. Social media detoxes may last any period of time, involving total abstention from our favorite sites for lurking and wasting time for a host of reasons. Perhaps you want to reclaim time lost to scrolling, improve your mental state, or take a vacation from the discourse.
But social media as we know it is still relatively new, and so are its dry-out periods. There’s no definitive guideline on how to best detox yet. Is a social media-free hour enough? How does a week differ from a month? Is detoxing a step toward eventually quitting?
Psychologists specializing in digital media say before formulating the best possible detox, it’s worth asking whether social media is something you need or should break from.
Is social media bad for mental health?
While many reports find that social media use, especially for kids, spurs anxiety and depression, that’s only part of the story.
“The literature on this is very, very mixed,” says Angela Lee, a communications PhD candidate at Stanford University’s Social Media Lab who studies social media and its effect on our mental health. Part of the trouble is making blanket statements about social media.
Social media isn’t all bad or all good. Among the benefits of social media, she counts professional growth, social capital, human connection, and, yes, downtime. “It's valuable for relaxation, which I think is something that gets a bad rap,” she says. Social media can be seen as a guilty pleasure or an unproductive form of relaxation compared to, say, reading a book.
This isn’t to say that social media has no negative effects whatsoever on mental health. A 2022 study found that a week-long break from social media improved well-being, depression, and anxiety. A 2023 study looking at psychological well-being and the use of Instagram and TikTok found that while these apps provided short-term relaxation, they also raised depression and anxiety.
But nothing is all good or all bad Karen North, a psychology professor specializing in digital media at the University of Southern California, points to examples of social media offering community. “There's also the research that shows that people who feel separated from others or disenfranchised can find like-minded others and develop meaningful connections or at least a feeling of community,” she tells Inverse. Those with chronic illness, disabilities, and psychiatric conditions may have a hard time finding people who understand their experience
A litmus test of whether a thought pattern or behavior poses a genuine problem is how it’s impacting your relationships and responsibilities, according to North. Furthermore, if there is a problem, it may not even be one of overuse but rather use in a way that promotes poor mental well-being.
“When people have bad habits, but it's not interfering with their daily lives, then it's much less of a diagnosable problem than when something is actually interfering,” North says. Your pre-bedtime Instagram habit might make you feel guilty or even steal some sleep, but unless you’re consistently sleep-deprived from scrolling videos, it’s not alarming.
Do social media breaks work?
A vacation from the infinite feed can be good, but it depends on what outcome you’re looking for. Maybe you simply want to remind yourself that you’re capable of living without checking Instagram, even for just a few days. It isn’t, however, necessarily going to do the wonders for your mental health you hope it will.
A 2022 review of 21 studies on social media detoxes involving over 3,600 people and 12 clinical trials came up with no clear answer. While some studies found positive effects, others found none or even negative consequences. This review also points out that since many of these papers use different interventions and methodologies, they can’t be compared equally. Some studies asked users to put down their phones entirely, while others only made certain apps off-limits. North stresses that while detoxing and abstinence are seen as the default way to healthfully use social media, it’s by no means the only way.
However, a crucial question after every detox that North impels people to grapple with is how they want their return to social media to look.
“The problem with the whole detox model is that when you do all or none, you do all, and it's excessive,” North says. “Then you choose a period of time to do none. And then what's the strategy for returning?”
How to return to social media in a healthy way
North and Lee also want users to remember that they have a degree of agency in their social media use.
“People need to recognize that they are training the social media apps to curate content for them,” North says. The content you engage with, from liking to even spending an extra millisecond looking at, begets more of that content.
Likewise, Lee authored a paper published in April 2023 on the role of agency in social media use. In it, she found this way of engagement tempers one’s relationship with the online world and provides literacy to interact with the things that might bring us strife. She likens using social media with the agency to teaching defensive driving.
“In an ideal world, you can go where you’ve got to go, and nothing bad's gonna happen,” she tells Inverse. “But you should be prepared.” Part of this preparation means knowing how to moderate usage, not simply cut it out when it gets out of control. She recalls how in her early teens, “nobody ever talked to anyone about it, because if they did, their parents were like, ‘Well, let's just take your phone away, you're not allowed to use the computer.’”
Social media has become as integral to connections as socializing in real life, Lee says. Giving that aspect up means making “some kind of social sacrifice.” It’s worth recognizing that because most Millennials grew up without social media, it’s often seen as an illusory, unreal way to socialize. However, if Gen Z and younger have taught us anything, it’s that social media is a legitimate place for connection and self-expression (though no substitute for real life).
So don’t give yourself a hard time if you find yourself watching TikTok videos for hours. Ask yourself if it made you laugh or taught you something. It can be a legitimate way to relax, and if you feel like you’re sinking too many hours into it, you can cut back without cutting out.