- Several recent studies have shown that high levels of social media use can negatively impact physical health.
- Evidence suggests that social media can damage psychological welfare and physical functioning if its use is taken too far.
- In one study, the group asked to reduce their social media use had an average 15 percent improvement in immune function.
It is now almost anachronistic to discuss the impact of social media on lifestyle as if the two are separate things, with one impacting the other. The fact is that social media use, for many people, is part of their lifestyle. However, the ubiquity of social media use among adults and children obscures some complex relationships between that usage and health.
Several recent studies have shown that high levels of social media use can negatively impact physical health and the well-known impacts on psychological functioning. Yet the relationships between social media use and health are complex. Combatting this potential negative impact on people’s physical well-being is not just as simple as telling them to go and do something more sensible.
It has been known for some time that social media usage is associated with a range of poor psychological-wellbeing outcomes, such as worse emotion regulation,1 increased depression, anxiety, and stress,2 as well as poor sleep quality.3 Yet according to a study I conducted with my team, social media use has effects beyond the psychological and social and is connected to poor physical health, including poor immune functioning.4
However, a difficulty in knowing quite what these results mean is that many of these studies are correlational in nature – that is, they show an association between high social media use and poor well-being, but they offer no evidence of a causal relationship. It is unclear which variable causes the other; it may be that social media use causes poor well-being, those with poor health seek out social media, or even some other factor causes both.
Importantly, several recent studies have gone beyond just showing associations and have demonstrated that reducing levels of social media use leads to improvements in mental and physical well-being. That is, reduced social media use is causally implicated in feeling better. One study found that paying participants to deactivate their Facebook accounts for four weeks increased their subjective well-being.5 Of course, the extra money may have had something to do with this finding.
Without paying people, another study found that getting people to limit their use of each social media platform to 10 minutes per day for three weeks reduced their loneliness and depression.6 Yet another report noted that depression reduced after limiting all social media usage to 30 minutes per day, in total, for three weeks.7
Beyond these impacts on psychological well-being, physical health also has been shown to improve by reducing social media use. A team of researchers, including myself, examined the physical health effects of getting people to reduce their social media usage by 15 minutes daily over three months.8 The outcomes of this reduction were compared to groups not asked to reduce their usage or asked specifically to do something other than social media during those 15 minutes.
The group that was asked to reduce their social media use had an average 15 percent improvement in immune function (they reported fewer colds, flu, warts, verrucae, etc.), a 50 percent improvement in sleep quality, and they reported 30 percent fewer depressive symptoms. These improvements were significantly greater than the other two groups, and neither showed any change in these measures.
When the actual social media usage of the groups was analysed by my team,8 these gains in health and functioning were achieved by reducing social media use by about 40 minutes a day (rather than the 15 minutes requested). The group not asked to do anything increased their usage by about 10 minutes a day over the course of the study. Strikingly, the group specifically asked to do something other than social media, increased their usage of social media by around 25 minutes a day.
One may conclude that telling people to do something else is counterproductive, as it may cause resentment. Just give people the facts, ask for a reduction, and let them figure out what to do with their time.
If we know that relatively small reductions in social media use improve our health, the next question is: why does this happen? Several suggestions need consideration; our team suggested a direct impact on health through reducing stress associated with social media use,4 and others suggest health improvements are mediated through impacts on other behaviours.9For example, social media usage may replace and interfere with health-promoting activities.9,10 However, it is also important to note that, sometimes, social media may allow access to information and activities, otherwise unavailable, which have beneficial health effects.9
Social media use can negatively affect engagement with important health activities, like having a good diet, sleeping well, or exercising. Many mental health concerns connected to social media use (especially for young women) are related to a displacement of sleep or physical activities.10,11 Thus, it may well be that a reduction in health-promoting lifestyles, often accompanying lots of social media use, underlies the poor health of those with a digital communication compulsion. 4,9
Additionally, as in the real world, research has established that social media can negatively affect a healthy diet due to what people are exposed to on digital platforms – the advertising they are subjected to. For example, seeing adverts for brands of foods, and tending to buy foods online rather than in shops, are related to higher consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks.12
So far, the picture of social media's effects on health has been negative. However, some claim that social media can maintain healthy activities by helping with self-management of physical activity and healthy eating.13 Being able to access exercise information and workout videos and interact with others allegedly motivates and benefits.13
It would be great if this were always the case; sadly, the evidence is distinctly mixed. Some studies have shown that wanting to discuss healthy activity on social media does not influence real-world activities.14 As noted, exposure to digital advertising can have a negative effect,11 and who you interact with can cut both ways.15
People tend to seek out those with similar views,16 and these views reinforce any existing predispositions regarding lifestyle,15 so, if these views are deeply-held and self-harmful, initially, they are likely only to get worse through digital contact.
Taken together, evidence suggests that social media can damage psychological welfare and physical functioning if its use is taken too far. This negative impact on health is partly due to the introduction of unhealthy lifestyle habits associated with social media use, especially around sleep and diet, and the displacement of physical activities. The good news is that simply reducing usage, even a little for a short time, can improve both psychological well-being and physical health.
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3. Buboltz, W., Soper, B., Woller, K. M., Johnson, P., & Faes, T. (2009). Sleep habits and patterns of college students: An expanded study. Journal of College Counseling, 12(2), 113-124.
4. Reed, P., Vile, R., Osborne, L.A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Problematic internet usage and immune function. PloS one, 10(8).
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9. Kushlev, K., & Leitao, M.R. (2020). The effects of smartphones on well-being: theoretical integration and research agenda. Current Opinion in Psychology, 36, 77-82.
10. Viner, R.M., Gireesh, A., Stiglic, N., Hudson, L.D., Goddings, A.L., Ward, J.L., & Nicholls, D.E. (2019). Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: a secondary analysis of longitudinal data. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 3(10), 685-696.
11. Hamilton, J.L., Hutchinson, E., Evankovich, M.R., Ladouceur, C.D., & Silk, J.S. (2023). Daily and average associations of physical activity, social media use, and sleep among adolescent girls during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Journal of Sleep Research, 32(1), e13611.
12. Mc Carthy, C.M., de Vries, R., Mackenbach, J.D. (2022). The influence of unhealthy food and beverage marketing through social media and advergaming on diet-related outcomes in children-A systematic review. Obesity Review, 23, e13441.
13. Goodyear, V.A., Boardley, I., Chiou, S. Y., Fenton, S.A., Makopoulou, K., Stathi, A., ... & Thompson, J.L. (2021). Social media use informing behaviours related to physical activity, diet and quality of life during COVID-19: a mixed methods study. BMC Public Health, 21, 1-14.
14. Zhou, X., & Krishnan, A. (2019). What predicts exercise maintenance and well-being? Examining the influence of health-related psychographic factors and social media communication. Health Communication, 34(6), 589-597.
15. Montes, F., Blanco, M., Useche, A., Sanchez-Franco, S., Caro, C., Tong, L., ... & Hunter, R.F. (2022). Exploring the mechanistic pathways of how social network influences social norms in adolescent smoking prevention interventions.
16. Reed, P. (2019). Are echo chambers a threat to intellectual freedom? Psychology Today. Are Echo Chambers a Threat to Intellectual Freedom? | Psychology Today