Do you reach for your phone as soon as you wake up? How often do you check your Instagram account to see what’s happening? How frequently do you find yourself interrupting work just to give Twitter or TikTok a quick scroll?
Social media first gained popularity as a way to stay in touch with friends and family, share life updates and express yourself creatively. But today, it’s far too easy to waste hours on apps like Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. Statistics illustrate the way so many of us are allowing social media to dominate our lives. Market research data reveal that people spent an average of 4.8 hours per day on their mobile phones in 2021.
The Pew Research Center just released a new survey of American teenagers aged 13 to 17. The proportion of teens who classify themselves as online “almost constantly” has roughly doubled since the 2014-15 survey, to nearly half of all teenagers, at 46% today compared to 24% eight years before. Perhaps more troubling, only 36% of teens believe they are online too much. (The Economist pointed out that if the Pew folks had surveyed their adult parents, “that figure would have been nearer to 100%.”)
These apps are designed to hook us and keep us scrolling. The bright screens, the red heart “likes,” the dings and pings of notifications are, slowly but surely, contributing to our inability to focus and harming our attention spans. Today, research shows that U.S. college students switch tasks once every 65 seconds, and office workers average only three minutes. As noted by the author Johann Hari in his book on the way technology is harming our ability to focus, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, ”the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes per day.” Worse, researchers have established that it can take, on average, 23 minutes to return to the same level of focus.
As social media use increases, so too does the prevalence of mental health issues. “Ninety percent of Americans look at a glowing electronic device in the hour before they go to bed,” writes Hari. Being exposed to bright light signals to our brains that it’s time to be awake and alert, often making it more difficult to fall asleep, as well as more difficult to achieve the quality of sleep required to feel refreshed. (To learn more about how sleep can affect mental health, listen to episode 97 of Eat Move Think.)
Evidence exists to tie social media use with mental health problems. New York Times op-ed writer Yuval Levin pointed out that internal documents at Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, tied Instagram use to body image issues for teen girls, as well as depression, self-harm and even suicide.
Depression, in many ways, is a reaction to the world we live in, where it’s very difficult to make connections—and as we saw during the pandemic, the inability to have good connections also led to higher levels of mental health issues. Through the pandemic, we relied heavily on social media to communicate, but it quickly became clear that technology was no replacement for in-person connections.
So what to do? A 2022 study found that “asking people to take a one-week break from led to significant improvements in well-being, depression, and anxiety.” Medcan’s Eat Move Think podcast producer Jasmine Rach recently conducted her own week-long social media cleanse, to see if she could replicate the above results.
“For the most part, it was a liberating experience,” said Rach at the week’s end. “And I was a lot more productive at work.” Rach’s cell phone screen time declined by 47 percent during her cleanse, and she used that extra time to do more real-world things she loves, like crocheting and cooking dinner with her partner. “That was extra time that I didn’t know I had, until I deleted ,” she says. As a result, she said she felt more content, less anxious, and more at peace than she normally might when using social media.
Similarly, the author Johann Hari took his own three-month break from technology. “I had no stresses, and I felt safe—so my mind-wandering could float freely and do its positive work,” he observed.
Technology can be addictive, but we don’t have to be enslaved by social media and screens. Numerous techniques exist that will help us all manage our social media usage more thoughtfully. If you opt to try your own social media cleanse, consider taking advantage of your phone’s screen time tracker to determine which apps you use most frequently—then work to improve your management of those apps. Instead of simply promising to avoid the most problematic social media, try deleting apps from your phone. And whether you opt for one week or one month, consider writing journal entries or recording voice memos about your thoughts and feelings, to track your progress.
If you do return to social media, consider the following tips:
In his book, Hari includes numerous tips for how to limit social media use and be more thoughtful about the way we use technology. For example:
A social media cleanse can help declutter your thoughts, provide more free time, and change your perspective on the benefits and issues related to social media. And if a full week seems tough, try easing into it with a half-day cleanse or a weekend cleanse.
If you’d like to talk about opportunities to support your own mental health, contact a member of Medcan’s mental wellbeing team at firstname.lastname@example.org.