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Social Media Impacts Physical Health: What Does Science Say?

Most people rely on social media to get their daily news and information. The mere thought of having no access to social media could literally induce goose bumps in some people. The newly coined term FOMO, that is, “fear of missing out” compels people to check their news feed everywhere, even when waiting on the traffic light. Social media notifications and the innate compulsion to be always available online has created a population of social media users who are rightfully called ‘alone together.

Undoubtedly, social media has created many problems for its users. Nevertheless, people cannot afford to overlook the impact of social media use on their physical and mental health.

There are many ways social media use can lead to health problems. For example, the constant social media connectivity can lead to communication overload, which could result in high stress levels. Increased stress, in and of itself, can adversely impact an individual’s physical and mental health. Basically, stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol. High level of cortisol increases the probability of getting infected and also delays recovery. Accordingly, people with higher cortisol levels take longer to recover even from a common cold.

Additionally, social media use can take a toll on healthy activities. When people spend more time on social media, they will have reduced time to complete their jobs and/or make a healthy meal, and/or be physically active, and/or sleep well. The never ending social media news feed cause people to displace their sleep time with the social media time. Many people check their social media before they go to sleep. Scientists have stressed upon the detrimental effects of the blue light (from the phone) on sleep. Blue light causes a decrease in the sleep hormone called melatonin. The accumulating stress for not completing the tasks on time coupled with an unbalanced diet, reduced activity, and reduced sleep means that the social media uses are literally shooting themselves in the foot.

Research on Social Media Use and Health

There is an increased interest in exploring the side effects of social media use on people’s psychological, mental, and physical well being. Hunt and colleagues asked their research participants to restrict their daily social media use to 10 minutes for three weeks. After three weeks of reduced social media use, participants reported a decrease in their loneliness and depression. In another study, Hunt and colleagues asked participants to limit their daily social media use to 30 minutes for three weeks. In this case, participants reported reduced depression.

Health Benefits for Deactivating Social Media Accounts

Interestingly, deleting or deactivating social media accounts is still fathomable. In one study, Allcott and colleagues explored the connection between social media use and health. Results showed that when participants deactivated their Facebook accounts for four weeks, their subjective well-being increased. It is worth noting that in this study participants were paid to deactivate their social media accounts.

Social Media and Sleep Quality

Low sleep quality is linked with poor physical health (e.g., cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and early mortality). Studies show a connection between social media use and reduced sleep quantity and quality.

In one study, Reed and colleagues divided their research participants into three groups. One group was asked to reduce their social media use by 15 minutes for three months. The second group was asked to use 15 minutes to do a specific task other than using social media. The third group was not given any directions regarding social media use. Researchers found that the group that reduced social media use by an average of 40 minutes for three months showed an average 15% improvement in immune functioning. That is, participants who reduced their social media use by an average of 40 minutes reported having fewer symptoms of colds, flu, warts, etc. These participants also reported a 50% improvement in sleep quality and a 30% reduction in depressive symptoms.

Interestingly, the group that was not given any directions about the social media use reported an increase in daily social media use by an average of 10 minute. Finally, the group that was given a specific task to complete reported an increased in daily social media use by 25 minutes on average. Finally, these two groups did not show any significant improvement in their health, sleep, or depressive symptoms.

Social Media and Chronic Inflammation

In one study, Lee and colleagues examined 251 undergraduate students to investigate if the amount of social media use is related to various indices of physical health. In this study, researchers analyzed the participants’ blood samples for C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a marker of chronic inflammation and is also associated with chronic illnesses (e.g., cardiovascular diseases, cancers, depression). Interestingly, social media use was positively linked with higher levels of CRP, frequent somatic symptoms (headaches, chest/back pain) in the past month, and also with more visits to the doctor’s office for a general illness. Essentially, higher social media use corresponded to higher inflammation, higher somatic symptoms, and a higher number of doctor’s visits.

Tips to improve health

Many studies including ones mentioned above have provided support that a reduction in social media use has health benefits. Less time on social media also means more time for other activities. Spending quality time with family/friends offline and avoiding social media especially before sleep is recommended. Turning off social media notifications and avoiding blue light from the electronic devices at bed time can improve sleep hygiene.

Take Home Message

Social media is negatively impacting our physical, psychological, and mental health. Spending less time on social media can improve immune functioning, sleep quality, and reduce depressive symptoms.

For Further Reading

Allcott, H., Braghieri, L., Eichmeyer, S., & Gentzkow, M. (2020). The welfare effects of social media. American Economic Review110(3), 629-76.

Augner, C., & Hacker, G.W. (2012). Associations between problematic mobile phone use and psychological parameters in young adults. International Journal of Public Health, 57(2), 437-441.

Hunt, M.G., Young, J., Marx, R., & Lipson, C. (2018). No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(10), 751-768.

Hunt, M.G, All, K., Burns, B., & Li, K. (2021). Too much of a good thing: Who we follow, what we do, and how much time we spend on social media affects well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology40(1), 46-68.

Reed, P., Vile, R., Osborne, L.A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Problematic internet usage and immune function. PloS one, 10(8).

Reed, P., Fowkes, T., & Khela, M. (2023). Reduction in social media usage produces improvements in physical health and wellbeing: An RCT. Journal of Technology in Behavior Science.

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