Digital detox: Do you need a break from social media?

·4-min read

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Pinpointing how social media makes you feel plays a part in deciding whether you should take a social media break.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

How much time do you spend on social media each day?

For many of us, it’s become almost like a routine to log onto our accounts, aimlessly scroll through our newsfeeds and watch the minutes, maybe even hours, go by.

Is it time to do a digital detox? Here's how to tell

Next time you’re on Instagram or Facebook, ask yourself how do those platforms really make you feel?

Experts say if social media is impacting your mental health and how you spend your day, it might be time to make some changes.

Jacqueline Sperling, a clinical psychologist and instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, says it’s not necessarily how much time you spend on social media, but how you spend that time that can negatively impact your mood, self-esteem and even sleep.

“I encourage people to collect data for themselves and they can rate their mood when they use social media and how they might do that could be on a scale of zero to 10, 10 being the most intensely you could experience an emotion and zero not at all,” Sperling said.

If social media makes you sad or mad, you may want to adjust what you’re seeing on your apps. Sperling suggests curating your newsfeed and unfollowing certain people who bring down your mood. She also recommends using it in a way that leads to face-to-face interactions.

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“Maybe you’re using it to connect with peers to set up plans in real life,” she added. “It could be you want to see what a special at a local restaurant is and then plan to meet up with my friends there so find ways to use it so that it doesn’t make you feel worse.”

Sperling, who is also the co-founder and co-program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts says there are different ways of using social media: active versus passive and self-oriented versus other-oriented.

“Active use might be uploading one’s profile picture, that’s a self-oriented activity and active and self-oriented activities are less linked to a negative impact on one’s mood and self-esteem,” Sperling explained. “It’s the passive and other-oriented activity such as scrolling through one’s newsfeed that create opportunities for comparison.”

How do you go cold turkey with social media?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by social media and thinking about taking a break, you’re not alone.

A number of celebrities, including Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes and Hailey Bieber, have all expressed their need to take a break from social media — and the benefits of the detox.

While one can applaud anyone willing to cut off social media completely for an extended amount of time, Sperling says some people will find it difficult to do cold turkey.

“I think there’s also this issue, what happens when you come back from your break?” she added. “It might be helpful to adjust how one uses the apps when they’re not on a break because if they find that they keep having to take breaks because it’s negatively impacting their mood then I might encourage someone to explore how they can adjust their use of the apps.”

Sperling, who is the author of the young adult non-fiction book “Find Your Fierce: How to Put Anxiety in Its Place,” acknowledges that it’s not realistic to tell youth to not use social media. She recommends finding a way for teens to use it in more positive ways and not allowing it to replace in-person socialization. If that’s not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, FaceTime and Zoom calls are a good alternative.

“It’s not replacing time that you would spend […] engaging in physical activity or extracurricular activities,” Sperling said. “Making sure that they’re filling their days with anything else that would be needed and helpful.”

If you want to give a social media detox a try, start small

If you are someone who really wants to give a social media detox a try, starting with small steps could be beneficial.

A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that cutting down to just 30 minutes a day on social media showed a significant reduction in loneliness, depression and anxiety. 

If you’re not sure if you need a break, the Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre, outlines several signs you should watch out for:

  • Experiencing separation anxiety when you can’t check your timeline

  • Social media is the first thing you check in the morning and the last thing you check at night

  • You can’t enjoy what you’re doing without posting about it online first

Social media has changed how many of us spend our time and if using it is not having a positive and meaningful impact on your day, maybe a break from time to time isn’t such a bad idea.

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