The study recommends replacing social media with physical activity.
Your mental health will be greatly enhanced if you spend 30 minutes less each day on social media and more time exercising. This was recently demonstrated in a study conducted by a team from Ruhr-Universität Bochum’s Mental Health Research and Treatment Center, led by assistant professor Dr. Julia Brailovskaia.
Following this advice for two weeks resulted in participants feeling happier, more satisfied, less stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and less depressed than participants in a control group. These results persisted even six months after the study’s conclusion. The scientists recently published their findings in the Journal of Public Health.
The drawbacks of social media
Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp made sure that we still felt connected to other individuals throughout periods of lockdowns and contact limitations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. They diverted us from the pandemic-related stress that many individuals experienced, which led to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and hopelessness.
However, using social media has its downsides as well. Heavy usage might result in addictive behavior, which may manifest as, for instance, a strong emotional connection to social media. Conspiracy theories and fake news may also spread uncontrolled on social media and increase anxiety.
“Given that we don’t know for certain how long the coronavirus crisis will last, we wanted to know how to protect people’s mental health with services that are as free and low-threshold as possible,” explains Julia Brailovskaia. To find out whether the type and duration of social media use can contribute to this, she conducted an experimental study as part of her fellowship at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS).
An experiment that lasted two weeks
Julia and her colleagues recruited 642 participants and randomly assigned them to one of four groups of about similar size. The first group cut down on their daily social media use by 30 minutes over the course of the two-week intervention period. The second group increased their daily physical activity by 30 minutes while continuing to use social media as normal since prior research had shown that physical exercise might improve mood and lessen depression symptoms. The third group increased physical activity while also decreasing social media usage. During the intervention period, the behavior of the control group remained unchanged.
Before, during, and up to six months after the two-week intervention phase, the participants responded to online surveys on the duration, intensity, and emotional significance of their social media use, physical activity, satisfaction with life, their subjective feeling of happiness, depressive symptoms, the psychological burden of the COVID-19 pandemic and their cigarette consumption.
Healthy and happy in the age of digitalization
The findings clearly showed that both reducing the amount of time spent on social media each day and increasing physical activity has a positive impact on people’s well-being. And particularly the combination of the two interventions increases one’s satisfaction with life and subjective feeling of happiness and reduces depressive symptoms.
The effects last for a long time: even six months after the two-week intervention phase had ended, participants in all three intervention groups spent less time on social media than before: namely about a half hour in the groups that had either reduced social media time or increased their daily exercise, and about three-quarters of an hour in the group that had combined both measures.
Six months after the intervention, the combination group engaged one hour and 39 minutes more each week in physical activity than before the experiment. The positive influence on mental health continued throughout the entire follow-up period.
“This shows us how vital it is to reduce our availability online from time to time and to go back to our human roots,” concludes Julia Brailovskaia. “These measures can be easily implemented into one’s everyday life and they’re completely free – and, at the same time, they help us to stay happy and healthy in the digital age.”
Reference: “Experimental longitudinal evidence for causal role of social media use and physical activity in COVID-19 burden and mental health” by Julia Brailovskaia, Verena J. Swarlik, Georg A. Grethe, Holger Schillack and Jürgen Margraf, 2 September 2022, Journal of Public Health.