Sputnik discussed this with Dr. Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania's psychology department, who led the research.
Sputnik: Can you first tell us more about studying and how it was carried out?
Dr. Melissa Hunt: There's a great deal of research that has existed previously showing that there was an association or correlation between increased social media use and decreased well-being, but none of the research was really able to establish a causal link because none of it was experimental. Several of my students and I decided to do an experimental study in which we did several things that have not been done previously.
So we discovered that the iPhone system has a battery tracker app that allows you to actually get quite conclusive information about how long an app has been active on the phone, so we got everybody to submit that data to us and at that point, after a week we randomly assigned people to continue their use as usual or alternatively, to limit their use to 10 minutes per platform per day, so it's a total of 30 minutes because we were examining Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram usage.
What we found is that over the course of three weeks, folks in the experimental group limited their use to an average 25 minutes a day, people got themselves down to from an average about an hour or an hour and a half that they've been doing previously, and found that their rates of depression and self-reported loneliness did go down and this was particularly striking for the folks who were more depressed at the beginning of this study.
Sputnik: So I'm guessing that everything that you've now just mentioned for us, this makes this research different from all previous ones, doesn't it?
Dr. Melissa Hunt: Yes, that's correct. There's only one prior actual experimental study that we were able to find, it used only Facebook, it relied on self-report of media use, and it actually asked people to abstain from Facebook use entirely for a week. We thought that that was unrealistic; at this point, social media is here to stay, and many young people rely on social media for finding out when their study group is meeting or looking for sales at businesses.
We thought that asking people to abstain completely was probably totally unrealistic and what we wanted to do was really have what's called an ecologically valid study, that is, a study that actually makes sense in the real world not just in the laboratory but it was still very rigorous and, as I said, used objective data which our study was the first to do.
Sputnik: How serious is the impact of social media on our lives? I'm sure most people tend to underestimate it?
Dr. Melissa Hunt: I think many users do underestimate it and one of the fun things about our study is that we heard from many of the folks in our study, even some of the folks in the control group, who were simply asked to become more aware and monitor their use of social media, that they really realized for the first time how much time they had been spending on it and how detrimental it was to their well-being.
A number of people said that they realized that when they put down their phones and got their heads out of their social media they got their work done faster, they spent more time connecting with people in the real world, in other the words, the things that actually contribute to self-esteem, and to a sense of embeddedness and social support in your community. When you get your head out of social media, you have more opportunities to do things that actually make you feel better in the world.
Sputnik: I was a bit surprised to read that social media makes people lonely and depressed, obviously, it would be because people tend to think of their own lives as not measuring up to the lives of other people, would that be the main reason for it?
Dr. Melissa Hunt: I think so, I think that's a big part of it. There's nothing specifically in our study that speaks to that but there is a wealth of prior research on social media that shows that it really encourages and fosters a kind of downward social comparison; when you're looking at other peoples lives that have been so carefully curated to show their best moments and their best photos, you can't help but think that in some way your life doesn't measure up.
So social media unfortunately it is one of the grand ironies that social media was supposed to help us connect with people but what it seems to be doing, at least if you overuse it, is to foster a sense of exclusion and to make you feel like your life isn't as good as other people's lives, and that's kind of depressing.
Sputnik: What can be done to encouraging people to decrease their usage of social media?
Dr. Melissa Hunt: There are ironically a number of apps out there that attempt to do just that, that attempt to help people control their use of social media. Apps that actually attempt to control the amount of time that another app is on your screen generally don't work, those things that were designed for parents to have control over their teenagers' use of social media and tech-savvy millennials can outwit and outsmart them very quickly and very easily, so it does don't really work.
What probably works better, although we don't have direct data that speaks to this, is apps that make you more aware of your use, so things that are going to send you little messages saying: You know, you've been on this for half an hour, maybe it's time to put it down and move on with your day.
Views and opinions expressed in the article are those of Dr. Melissa Hunt and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik