Is it time you went on a social media detox?

In today's world, social media is central to our lives. It helps us to stay in touch with our friends, promote our work, and follow the latest news. How do these networks impact our mental and physical health? Is it time to take a break from being permanently online?

Nowadays, we have plenty of social networking sites to choose from, and the options seem to be ever expanding.

Many people actually hold multiple accounts, which they may use for different purposes.

I, for one, use one platform to communicate with friends and family, and another to stay up to date with the most recent research developments.

Sometimes, however, a sense of dread creeps in: what if I'm wasting too much of my time reading the news instead of actually writing the news? What if my Facebook friends are doing more with their lives?

When these thoughts strike, it feels as though social media is a sort of black hole, sucking up time as well as mental and emotional energy. Would I be better off "unplugging" more often?

And it seems that I'm not the only one having these concerns. In speaking to my colleagues in the Medical News Today office, I learned that a similar sense of unease regarding social media was a common denominator.

"It takes me out of the 'now' all the time," one colleague reported, and several others said that they were worried by social networks' "echo chamber effects." Also, colleagues who had already said their goodbyes to social media still stand by their decision wholeheartedly.

"I have stopped using [social media] because of 'fear of missing out' and always being sad about other people doing fun stuff or appearing to do fun stuff," one such colleague confessed.

"I know that it's all a fantasy world but it's impossible not to be sucked into it and made to feel as though your life is 'less fun' than others'. I am so much happier without [these accounts]."

Over the past couple of years, many people — especially from the younger generations — have been leaving social networking websites.

Viral talks from those who left social media for a month or more — such as this one — suggest that a proper detox has helped them to become more relaxed, focused, and productive. But does scientific research support these anecdotal conclusions?

Spoiler alert: yes. And here's what it says.

1. Social media can affect mental health

A number of studies have linked social media use with increased levels of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

Social media lovers have twice the risk of depression, compared with their less enthusiastic peers.

Research has revealed that younger and older users alike are in danger of breaking under the pressure of unachievable standards of beauty and success, which are often inherent in the workings of social networking websites.

A study published last month found that among children aged 10 who are active on the Internet, social media accounts "could have [a negative] impact on well-being later in adolescence and perhaps throughout adulthood," the authors explain.

Among young adult users, social media notably increases the incidence of anxiety and depression, according to the results of a sizeable study conducted in 2016.

In fact, the researchers saw that users who frequently checked their accounts had a more than twice as high a risk of depression than their less social media-oriented peers.

This may partly be due to the fact that social networks create an artificial need to be available 24/7, to respond to messages and emoji reactions instantly. But this attitude creates an unnecessary amount of low-key stress that takes its toll on our emotional well-being.

And, despite the fact that such platforms are supposed to enhance our sense of connectedness with other people, research has found that they actually have the opposite effect: they render dedicated users lonelier and more isolated.

However, this shouldn't really surprise us. The hyperconnectedness takes place at a superficial level, eliminating all of the extra elements that make communication more valuable and psychologically constructive.

Such elements include eye contact, body language, the possibility of listening for changes in our interlocutor's tone of voice, or the possibility of physical touch.

2. Online interactions can harm relationships

Social media websites can also promote loneliness by harming the quality of relationships in direct and indirect ways.

Seemingly harmless comments on social media can pull at the wrong strings and drive people apart.

Firstly, there's only so much that you can control when it comes to what your friends — or often "friends" — share about you on their social media accounts.

Perhaps a new acquaintance thinks it's funny, for example, to publicly share an unflattering photo of you two at the bar after work.

Or, maybe your third cousin is amused by the idea of tagging you in a meme with doubtful implications.

Such situations may cause embarrassment at best, but a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that these moments can often damage relationships in irreparable ways.

"We found," explains study co-author Yvette Wohn, "that people who tried to remove or justify embarrassing content actually experienced a decline in their relationship with the offender."

"It may be important for people to know that trying to engage in impression management may also come at the expense of a personal relationship," she adds.

However, the things that we post on our personal pages can also have unintended consequences. Throwaway comments, links and quotes shared out of context, or misplaced jokes can all be doubly damaging in a medium that encourages quick sharing and rushed reading.

"Social media is instant, in some cases can reach millions of people at once, and can even instigate behaviors. We often don't even know who might eventually read it and how it will affect them," warns Nels Oscar, who conducted a study on how social networking websites perpetuate stereotypes.

His research focused on what kinds of views about Alzheimer's disease were shared through social media, and the findings were shocking. The study saw that "21.13 percent of all Tweets [...] used [Alzheimer's disease]-related keywords in a stigmatizing fashion."

"A point many people don't understand when using social media is that their intent is often irrelevant. All people eventually see is the comment, without any other context, and have to deal with the pain it can cause."

Nels Oscar

3. Social media can fuel dangerous behaviors

Another reason to be wary of how much time we spend on social media networks is because they are designed to make us come back for more.

Research has shown that what we see on social media can lead us to make poor decisions and form dangerous habits.

Last year, researchers in the United States and the Netherlands looked at the degree to which we are conditioned to immediately respond — even to simple visual cues related to — social media.

They found that just seeing the Facebook logo makes people want to go onto the website and look at their feed. In other words, we've learned to just automatically click as if on command, without thinking too much about it.

Another set of experiments, conducted a few years earlier, reached an even more worrying conclusion: that the superficial way in which social media teaches us to engage with the world actually fuels irrational behavior.

Vincent F. Hendricks, from the University of Copenhagen, and Pelle Hansen, of Roskilde University — both of which are in Denmark — explain:

"With the advent of modern information technology, we more often than not base decisions on aggregated public signals such as likes, upvotes, or retweets on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than taking the time to reflect and deliberate ourselves, with possibly severe consequences for democracy."

Also, the carefully "groomed" aspect of what we see on social media can lead us to make harmful decisions, without realizing how dangerous they can actually be.

One study from the University of Houston in Texas investigated how and why university students fall into heavy drinking after they misread the posts that their friends share online.

"Heavier drinkers tend to overestimate how much others are drinking, and they tend to think that they are drinking less than what's normal," notes study co-author Nguyen Steers.

But, she adds, "When heavy drinkers are confronted with what's actually normal, they're usually surprised when they realize they're drinking way above the norm."

4. Our physical health is at risk

An over-active social media presence can leave its mark not just on our mental health, as we noted above, but also on our physical health — particularly by altering our sleep patterns.

Our online activities can interefere with our sleeping patterns.

A 2014 study of U.S. adults aged 19–32 found that the participants checked their preferred social media accounts for over an hour per day, on average, and about 30 times per week.

And, 57 percent of these users reported sleep disturbances.

The researchers suggest that the reason behind why social media users may experience poor sleep could include:

  • the fact that they feel compelled to be active on these websites at all hours, including late at night
  • the possibility that social media use "may promote emotional, cognitive, and/or physiological arousal"
  • the fact that exposure to bright screens before bedtime has been linked to disturbed sleep

Research published in the journal Acta Paediatrica says that the same holds true for younger users, aged 11–20. Of the 5,242 study participants, 73.4 percent reported that they used social media for at least 1 hour every day, and 63.6 percent reported getting insufficient sleep.

"The impact social media can have on sleep patterns," says senior author Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput, "is a topic of great interest given the well-known adverse effects of sleep deprivation on health."

5. Social media decreases productivity

Lastly — but no less importantly — researchers have proven that our commitment to social media platforms can negatively affect our commitment to our own creative and professional lives in complex ways.

Have you been finding it more difficult to focus? Social media may be to blame.

A study paper published last year in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggested that we spend much more time on social networks than we think we do, therefore wasting one of our most valuable resources: time.

"We found evidence," the authors write, "that Internet- and Facebook-related stimuli can distort time perception due to attention- and arousal-related mechanisms."

Reports suggest that even when we're at work, we still succumb to the need to check out the newest "likes" and comments, although we know we're not supposed to.

One dataset found that employees spend 2.35 hours per day, on average, accessing their social media accounts in the workplace. Is it any wonder that we sometimes find it difficult to meet deadlines if we're itching to count our "likes" again?

Social media has also reared a many-headed beast: multitasking. Such platforms encourage us to constantly switch between tasks, or to attempt to perform multiple tasks at the same time — such as listening to our friend's new video while also reading the comments left on said video, and maybe also replying to a few.

Research shows, however, that when we multitask, we simply lose the ability to focus on any one task at a time. Therefore, we might find that reading through an article or blog post in one sitting has become difficult, and sitting down with a 200-page book may be nigh on impossible.

So, if you've successfully read this entire article and related to at least some of the points above, it might be time for you to consider a social media detox.

Delete your social apps or install a social media-blocking widget in your browser, and see how you feel after a few days — or weeks, or maybe even months — without as many distractions.