A new study by the American Psychological Association validates what some parents have experienced when their teenagers cut back: They feel better about themselves.
Social media can feel like a comparison trap, says study author Helen Thai, a doctoral student in psychology at McGill University. Her research found that limiting screen time to about one hour a day helped anxious teens and young adults feel better about their body image and their appearance. Her research arose from personal experiences.
“What I noticed when I was engaging in social media was that I couldn’t help but compare myself,” Thai says, as KQED reported.
Scrolling through posts from celebrities and influencers, as well as peers and people in her own social network, led to feelings of inferiority.
“They looked prettier, healthier, more fit,” Thai says. While she is well aware that social media posts feature polished, airbrushed and filtered images that alter appearances in an unrealistic way, it still affected her negatively.
Thai and a team of researchers decided to test if cutting down time on social media platforms including Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat would improve body image. They recruited a few hundred volunteers, aged 17-25, all of whom had symptoms of anxiety or depression — making them vulnerable to the effects of social media.
Half of the participants were asked to reduce their social media to 60 minutes a day for three weeks, Thai says. The other half continued to use social media with no restrictions, which averaged about three hours per day.
The researchers gave the participants surveys that included statements such as “I’m pretty happy about the way I look,” and “I am satisfied with my weight.” Among the group that cut social media use, the overall score on appearance improved from 2.95 to 3.15 on a 5-point scale. This may seem like a small change, but any shift in such a short period of time is noteworthy, researchers say.
“This randomized controlled trial showed promising results that weight and appearance esteem can improve when people cut back on social media use,” wrote psychologist Andrea Graham, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention at Northwestern University, who reviewed the results for NPR.