“Youth spend, on average, between 6 and 8 hours per day on screens, much of it on social media,” said senior study author Gary S. Goldfield, PhD, senior scientist at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada. “Social media provides exposure to so many photo-edited pictures – including those of models, celebrities, and fitness instructors – that perpetuate an unattainable beauty standard that gets internalized by impressionable youth and young adults, leading to body dissatisfaction.”
Plenty of research has linked frequent social media use with body image issues and even eating disorders. But crucial gaps in our knowledge remain, Dr. Goldfield said.
Much of that research “is correlational,” Dr. Goldfield added. And studies don’t always focus on individuals who may be more vulnerable to social media’s harmful effects, such as those with ruminative or brooding cognitive styles, affecting results.
And none have explored an obvious question: Can cutting down on social media use also diminish its potential harms?
Dr. Goldfield and his colleagues found an answer: Yes, it can.
Limiting social media use to 1 hour per day helped older teens and young adults feel much better about their weight and appearance after only 3 weeks, according to the study in Psychology of Popular Media, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
“Our randomized controlled design allowed us to show a stronger causal link between social media use and body image in youth, compared to previous research,” Dr. Goldfield said. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that social media use reduction leads to enhanced body image.”
Nancy Lee Zucker, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, said the results provide needed data that could help guide young people and parents on optimal social media use. Dr. Zucker was not involved in the study.
What the researchers did
For the study, Dr. Goldfield and colleagues recruited undergraduate psychology students aged 17-25 who averaged at least 2 hours per day of social media use on smartphones, and who had symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Participants were not told the purpose of the study, and their social media use was monitored by a screen time tracking program. At the beginning and end of the study, they answered questions such as “I’m pretty happy about the way I look,” and “I am satisfied with my weight,” on a 1 (never) to 5 (always) Likert scale.
During the first week, all 220 participants (76% female, 23% male, and 1% other) were told to use social media on their smartphones as they usually do. Over the next 3 weeks, 117 students were told to limit their social media use to 1 hour per day, while the rest were instructed to carry on as usual. In both groups, over 70% of participants were between age 17 and 19.
The first group cut their social media use by about 50%, from a mean of around 168 minutes per day during week 1 to around 78 minutes per day by the end of week 4, while the unrestricted group went from around 181 minutes per day to 189.