BOCHUM, Germany — You’ve heard it tons of times already: Put down the phone! Excessive screen time and scrolling is a modern epidemic. If you’re in need of some new motivation to take a break from technology, consider new research just released by The Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. Researchers report spending just 30 minutes less on social media daily and replacing that time with physical activity can work significant wonders for mental health.
Study subjects who followed this routine for just two weeks reported feeling much happier, more satisfied, less stressed over COVID-19, and less depressed in comparison to a control group. Notably, these benefits lasted for as long as six months after the study had ended.
Over the past few years of pandemic living, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and WhatsApp helped people across the globe stay in touch with friends, family, and at the very least feel somewhat connected to others. These networks distracted many of us from an unbelievably stressful, seemingly never-ending viral situation; it’s no secret that anxiety rates increased dramatically during the pandemic.
Of course, there is also a well-documented dark side to social media. Too much time spent scrolling can lead to addictive behavior that eventually results in a close emotional bond to one’s platform of choice. And that’s not even mentioning all of the fake news and conspiracy theories spread online that can trigger even more cynicism, stress, and 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,” study leader and assistant professor Dr. Julia Brailovskaia says in a university release. To investigate if the type and duration of social media use can contribute to this, Dr. Brailovskaia conducted an experimental study as part of her fellowship at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS).
Goodbye social media, hello heart and brain!
The research team recruited 642 participants, and assigned them randomly to one of four experimental groups. The first was tasked with reducing their daily social media consumption by 30 minutes for a period of two weeks. The second group was asked to increase their usual daily physical activity by 30 minutes, all while continuing to use social media as they normally would. The third group combined both approaches; reducing social media use and increasing exercise. Additionally, a fourth control group didn’t change any behaviors during the two week experimental period.
Before, during, and up to six months after the two-week trial period, subjects responded to a series of online surveys. The questionnaires asking about the duration, intensity and emotional significance of their social media use, as well as their exercise habits, life satisfaction, subjective feelings of happiness, depressive symptoms, the psychological burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, and any cigarette use.
Ultimately, the findings clearly displayed a positive correlation between spending less time on social media and increasing physical activity with improved well-being. Combining those two strategies appears to increase life satisfaction and subjective feeling of happiness while lowering depressive symptoms.
As touched on earlier, the benefits held up for a long time. Even after six months had passed, subjects in all three experimental groups were still spending less time on social media than before — about a half hours among the groups who had either reduced social media time or increased their daily physical activity levels. That amount jumped to about 45 minutes in the group that had combined both strategies.
Six months after the study, the combination group was exercising for one hour and 39 minutes more on a weekly basis than before the experiment! Importantly, the mental health benefits also held up 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,” Dr. Brailovskaia concludes. “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.”
The study is published in the Journal of Public Health.