A digital detox may not improve wellbeing, study

Social media users who reduced usage for a week saw decreases in both positive and negative emotions.

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It is often known that using social networking sites (SNSs) excessively can be detrimental to our mental health and general well-being. Several studies have demonstrated that certain SNS users exhibit behavioral patterns that are similar to the diagnostic standards for traditional substance use disorders.

However, there is presently no official diagnostic for “SNS addiction,” and many researchers disagree that some extreme behaviors should be classified as addictions for fear that doing so would overly pathologize everyday activity.

However, an increasing body of research highlights the advantages of “digital detox” for well-being and mental health. The current study examined the impact of a week of significantly less use of social networking sites (SNS) among moderate to heavy users using a battery of affective and motivational measures.

The final sample of 51 participants reported using at least one SNS daily, using an iPhone with the Screen Time app-enabled, and being willing to abstain from using SNSs for one week.

Participants with varying levels of problematic use were included by targeting separate adverts towards more and less problematic users. Mood was assessed using ecological momentary assessments over 15 days, including baseline and post-intervention assessments. This also allowed for the assessment of compensatory behaviors and rebound effects.

Researchers discovered no proof that a temporary restriction on social networking use causes withdrawal symptoms in users or links such symptoms to problematic use behaviors. Additionally, no evidence restricting one’s usage of social networking sites has any demonstrable benefits for well-being. 

Researchers found somewhat contradictory effects on mood, with a decline in positive affect from the baseline to the post-intervention period and a concurrent reduction in negative affect and boredom during the intervention, as opposed to a generally positive or negative influence. Significantly, reduced SNS use did not increase or decrease implicit motivation for SNSs.

Screen time data analyses revealed that while most participants were prepared to give up social networking sites for a week, most found it challenging to stay abstinent, with 86.5% of them “relapsing” at least once. It suggests that when SNS users voluntarily limit their use for a week, the majority of them—even those with more problematic or excessive use—do not typically experience psychological withdrawal-like effects.

Reducing social media use could positively and negatively affect mood, as shown by mood data analyses. The decrease in positive affect could be due to fewer opportunities to obtain social rewards on social networking sites, such as likes, positive comments, and followers.

The data showed a small decrease in negative emotions, especially during the intervention. Scientists believe this could be due to reduced exposure to adverse experiences on social media, such as comparing ourselves to others feeling left out or even online bullying and harassment.

Scientists noted, “Interestingly, we did not observe the predicted variation of affective/motivational responses contingent on individual differences, including problematic use behaviors.”

“In sum, the present study indicates that abstaining or reducing SNS use for one week is not associated with any substantial effects on affective or motivational responses. Importantly, contrary to our hypotheses, we found no evidence of withdrawal-like effects correlated with more problematic SNS use. Our findings suggest that similar to recent consensus regarding the diagnostic guidelines for gaming disorder in the ICD-11 which have eschewed withdrawal criteria, the concept of withdrawal may also be less important for the diagnosis of problematic SNS use.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Wadsley M, Ihssen N (2023) Restricting social networking site use for one week produces varied effects on mood but does not increase explicit or implicit desires to use SNSs: Findings from an ecological momentary assessment study. PLoS ONE 18(11): e0293467. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0293467
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