Adolescents in the US spend more than eight hours a day on screens, and there is growing concern about how social media is affecting their mental health.
Now a new study, published Thursday by the American Psychological Association, confirms what some parents have experienced when they divorce their teens: They seem to feel better about themselves. I’ve seen this in my own kids when they come back from summer camp where phones aren’t allowed. They seem more secure and less sad.
Social media can feel like a trap for comparison, says study author Helen Thai, a doctoral student in psychology at McGill University. Her research found that limiting screen time to about one hour a day helped anxious teens and young adults feel better about their body image and appearance.
His research was born out of his own experiences.
“What I noticed when I got on social media was that I couldn’t help but compare myself,” Thai says. Discrimination by posts from celebrities and influencers, as well as peers and people in their social networks, led to lower feelings.
“They looked prettier, healthier, fitter,” says Thai. She was well aware that social media posts often feature retouching, puzzles or retouched images that can unequivocally change appearances, but still affect her negatively.
So Thai and a team of researchers decided to test whether spending time on social platforms including Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat could improve body image. They recruited a few hundred volunteers, aged 17-25 years, who all experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression that could make them vulnerable to the effects of social media.
Half of the participants were asked to reduce their social media use to 60 minutes a day for three weeks, says Thai. The middle class continued to use social media without any restrictions, which averaged about three hours per day.
Researchers gave study participants surveys at the beginning and end, which included statements such as “I feel good about the way I look” and “I am satisfied with my weight.” Among the group that use social media, the overall score improved significantly from 2.95 to 3.15 on a 5-point scale. This may seem like a small change, but any change in such a short period of time is striking, say the authors.
“This randomized controlled trial shows promising results that weight and appearance ratings can improve when cutting back on social media use,” wrote psychologist Andrew Graham, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention at Northwestern University, who reviewed the results for NPR.
Graham says he was encouraged that college students would be willing to cut the time off, even for three weeks. “This provides some evidence that it may be possible with this age group to reduce their use of social media,” he said. Although this study included people who had symptoms of anxiety or depression, Graham says it’s worth evaluating this approach with other groups, such as people with or at risk for eating disorders. It is also possible to extend the benefits of breaking up to someone in this age group more broadly.
Social media platforms are always evolving and attracting young users. “The digital world is here to stay,” says Thai. So, he says, the question becomes: “How do we adapt to this new world in some way, where we would not be negatively affected or restrained?”
Here are some ideas to try:
Social media 1. Be careful not to feed on content that makes you feel bad
Instagram and TikTok are filled with idealized images of bodies. Filters can help you appear slimmer, more tang or wrinkle free. “The body-centric content algorithm pushes you because it sells,” says Lexie Milvus, author of her twin sister. More than a body: Your body is an instrument, not an ornament. He says social media platforms can harm cultural messages, especially for girls and women, by amplifying them because of beauty and sex appeal.
So, it’s up to the user to push it. “Be incredibly mindful, as a book, of how each creator, each image, each reason feels,” Kite said. But if the post or history makes you uncomfortable or smaller thanmake a choice to either mute or unfollow. “I do,” said Kite. “You are the only one who can feed your worries.”
2. Schedule one day off from machines each week
Artist and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain says there’s power in unplugging one day a week. She turns off her devices every Friday evening and takes a 24-hour break, which she now calls “Tech Shabbat.” She and her family started this tradition hundreds of years ago when her children were young.
“There’s something about that full day of the week that intersects that restores me and everyone in my family in a deep way,” she says. And the irony of disconnecting from social media: “It’s the day I feel most connected to my family.”
She is the author 24/6: given Screens one day a week to have more time, creativity, and Connectionand is currently working on a film about the teenage brain. For teenagers, the weekend can be out of fear, or FOMO. On social media, everyone can seem happy and popular, so it’s not difficult. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” says Shlain – a statement he recently saw pointed out by an artist friend. So Friday night might be a good time to turn it off.
3. Turn off notifications and set limits on the use of social media apps
If your goal is to limit social media to an hour of the day, start by tracking your time through individual apps. iPhone screen time tracker that lets you know how much time you spend on apps and websites, as well as how often you pick up your device.
“Smartphones allow you to set limits for each device to help manage usage,” Thai says.
Also, you can turn off your social media notifications so they don’t appear on your home screen. And set the downtime date in your device settings. Thai says it comes down to setting a goal, and then tracking your behavior to help you hold yourself accountable.
4. Use the time you were giving social media to invest in real-life activities instead of “
This may sound obvious, but seeing your friends on social media is not the same as spending time with them. So make some plans to connect with friends in real life. The same goes for self-care. Thai says he took a break from social media as a new year’s resolution. “I noticed that less time meant more time for me to fit in other aspects of my life, which I wanted to maintain more consistently, such as physical activity, reading; [and] listen to podcasts,” Thai says.
Graham of Northwestern University has the same plan. Doing something fun can help improve your mental health, “like quitting social media” and “doing something enjoyable can lead to good results,” Graham says.
5 with those who share your interests and goods
The world is filled with interesting people doing wonderful things. Social media can be a more positive place for teenagers or adults when you connect with those who share your interests and behind inspiring ideas or stories. Kite says she will follow people who make her uncomfortable, “and I’ll be back with the activists.”
She’s curated her nutrition as a mix of humor and advocacy — connecting with like-minded people “who laugh at the sexist, objectionable media landscape we all live in,” she says. “It’s fun to use social media.”
Kite likes content creators who want to show it on screen without a filter, “I like to see what’s on their social media feed,” he says.
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