An experimental study at Penn State’s psychology department has directly linked limited social media use with reduced loneliness and depression. But how does something that calls itself “social” make us feel lonely?
Instagram lets you know when you’ve seen all new posts from the past two days
This subject interests me because it’s something I have experienced first hand. Working from home, I get lonely very easily, and I once thought that browsing Facebook or Instagram on a coffee break would make me feel better. It is, after all, called social media.
I’m not saying that I noticed the effects social media had on my mental health right away, but in hindsight, it hasn’t done me any good. Social media is set up to distract you from whatever you should be doing for as long as possible. That includes fitting a normal dose of socialisation into your day.
This is why I am a huge fan of Instagram’s feature that lets you know when you’re caught up with posts from the past two days. It sets a line between catching up and mindless procrastination. If you continue scrolling past the alert, you know you could probably be making better use of your time. That is enough to make me close the app and do something else.
Why don’t other social media channels like Facebook utilise this? Because unlike Instagram, Facebook isn’t chronological. It feeds you things you might have seen already intermingled with new things. It keeps you using it for as long as possible. It shows you the highlights of your friends lives. It constantly tells you others are having a better time than you are. It makes you want to post things to show you have a good life too – it’s a popularity contest.
Do more likes make us feel less lonely?
For me, the trick is the right balance. The Penn State study only limited social media use with students – 10 minutes per day for each channel (Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat) – they didn’t completely remove it. They still saw a reduction in loneliness and depression.
My method is turning off notifications. The only apps I allow to notify me on my phone are WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Gmail. It means I’m never distracted from what I’m doing by social media, and I get to choose when to use it.
What is also important is to ensure we get enough face-to-face contact. I aim to leave the house at least once a day. I walk the dog, go to the gym, visit my mum, or just go to the shops – anything to get out and be connected with other human beings (not via the internet).