Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

The Mental Health Benefits of a Social Media Detox

Time and time again, detoxes prove to be one of the most popular trends amongst young adults. Green juices to cleanse the body, charcoal masks to purify the skin, and now, social media detoxes to clear the mind. Which smartphone applications are worthy of removal (whether temporarily or altogether) has become a critical topic of conversation.

In January 2018, a Pew Research Study of U.S. adults found that 78% of 18-24 year olds use Snapchat, and 71% of those people visit the app more than once daily. The truth is, most college students today would likely admit to opening the app far more frequently than just a handful of times. The negative impact of social media apps on mental health is becoming a greater concern for many. The growing discomfort of consumers prompts a personal question: “Do I need to step back?”

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2018, asked a group of 143 students to restrict daily time spent on Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram to ten minutes. The study was able to report “significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks” for non-control groups. However, the direct correlation between these emotions and use of social media is difficult to establish. The study also discovered that both the control and non-control groups were found to display “significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out [FOMO]… suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring.” This additional finding suggests that a complete detox from social media is not necessary to notice an impact. Even the simple goal of minimizing exposure has been shown to benefit mental health. By establishing a limit for time spent networking, individuals can reclaim ownership over their relationships with these applications.

Keaden Morisaki, MCAS ‘22, is interested in the idea of temporarily cleansing social media from his routine after weighing his own participation.

“Personally, Snapchat grabs the majority of my attention. I’m constantly getting notifications that pop up on my lock screen, and even if I have my phone on Do Not Disturb I still see the number on the icon when I scroll by it, or just feel compelled to check,” he explains. In referencing benefits beyond those regarding mental health, Morisaki wonders whether the cleanse would have effects on a broader range of areas including sleep and focus.

In imagining his own approach, Morisaki added, “I would just go for a week and see how that felt and decide where to go from there. I might even feel more accomplished when I go to bed and wake up better rested from the decreased screen time and exposure to blue light, which can impact your sleep.”

Snapchat in particular creates a unique environment between users. As opposed to Facebook or Instagram, where posts generally involve blasting pictures to a large, public group, Snapchat endorses conversations in the form of pictures. The app then counts the number of days that two people have been corresponding, and rewards them with “streak” labels in the form of fire emojis scattered throughout their inboxes. ABC News, after talking to psychiatrist and author of Screen Smart Parenting, Dr. Jodi Gould, reported that “streaks can create a concerning hierarchy of friendship that can leave some teens afraid to disappoint others if they drop a streak—or petrified about any change in status.”

Innovations like the Snapchat “streak” suggest that attachment to technology, for which the current generation of college students are so often ridiculed, has escalated into something more powerful. For example, although a fire emoji does not equate to an authentic friendship, that false reality can seem genuine and thus create compelling feelings of responsibility toward maintaining conversations. As of June 2018, Snapchat users were reported to collectively send 2,083,333 snaps per minute. Are all two million of those the components of purposeful discussion? Not likely.

In order to maintain streaks, people often send pictures of whatever they see around them, whether it be bedsheets in the morning or salads at lunch. Some reason that these exchanges are fruitless on both ends because nothing of true substance is being communicated. The same goes for face pictures. Oftentimes, the same expressions or snapshots of foreheads are passed back and forth multiple times a day. Checking Snapchat is not only time-consuming but can also feel redundant and meaningless for many. Tori Cooper, MCAS ‘22, asks with exasperation, “All I’m doing is sending [you] a picture. I’m going to see you in thirty minutes. Do you really need to see my face?”

Jenna Mu, MCAS ‘22, is currently undergoing her own social media cleanse. The cleanse initially started as a hybrid New Year’s Resolution.

“I read the blog of an author that takes a social media detox every December to start the new year off right," Mu recalls. "I also found myself, in general, checking my phone when I was spending time with people. I thought it was time to take a break.” After spending an entire month absent from Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, she emerged with a new perspective and some valuable observations. Despite citing FOMO and worries about falling behind in terms of what her friends were up to, Mu also explained that there were benefits in limiting communication to direct messages.

“Taking a social media break really opens your eyes to who is just sending streaks and staying in contact with you, and who is actively trying to stay in contact with you,” she said. “I’ve engaged in really meaningful conversations over text with the people I [used to] Snapchat.” Mu decided, for the time being, to only re-install Instagram out of the three apps she had removed.

51% of the Pew Research Study’s 18-24 year old consumers said they would have trouble giving up social media. However, the growing number of individuals like Mu and Morisaki, who wish to keep their networking time in check, says otherwise. Efforts to abstain from Snapchat or other sources of social media demonstrate that applications don’t deserve the current level of importance we bestow upon them. They can act as platforms to connect with old and new friends, to capture exciting moments, and to keep in touch from time to time. However, the benefits that these apps brings can be negated when checking one’s feed becomes an annoyance instead of an amusement.

The agency to put one’s phones down and pursue genuine relationships is always present, and a cleanse could be just the opportunity to do so. Relationships can start through social media, but many would advocate that the goal should always be to develop them more genuinely and carry them beyond the screen, out to the real world beyond.

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