people in circle on phones looking at social media

A study conducted on undergraduate students measured the impact of reducing social media time on mental health.

The New Boogeyman

A generation ago, parents had a villain they could point to and blame for everything: the television. It wasn’t only parents. Anyone with an opinion on raising kids, or on the state of the youth, alongside anyone who began sentences with “Back in my day…” would tell anyone who would listen what they thought about excess TV watching.

It will rot your brain, they said.

It causes violence, they said.

It’s the reason kids don’t go outside anymore.

It’s the reason [fill in literally any gripe].

In 2023, parents and cultural critics have a new villain: social media. In the eyes of many people, social media is the root of everything wrong with the new generation. We understand why. The advent and explosion in the popularity of social media coincided with an increase in mental health issues among adolescents, including increases in suicide. However, two phenomena paired in time do not necessarily have a causal relationship.

The data shows this to be true. Social media can have negative consequences for the following distinct groups of people, as reported in a study conducted by Common Sense Media:

  • Teenage females between age 10 and 14
  • Teenage boys and girls between age 13 and 18 with a mental health disorder
  • Teenagers who have been bullied at school or online
  • Teen boys or girls with low self-image or low self-esteem
  • Teenagers prone to negative self-talk

Social media is particularly dangerous when people in these demographic groups use social media in the following ways:

  1. Comparing Social Status
  2. Comparing Appearance
  3. Negative Interactions
  4. Heavy Daily Use (3+ hours)

The situation around social media gained enough attention for the Surgeon General to issue an advisory (SGA) about heavy social media use among teens. To learn more about that SGA, please navigate to the blog section of our website and read this article:

Why the Surgeon General’s Social Media Advisory for Youth Matters for Adult Mental Health

We’ll take a moment to explain the highlights of that article, then discuss the new study we mention in the beginning of this article.

The Surgeon General’s Advisory: Key Points

The SGA reiterates the observations made by the Common Sense Media study. They add the following insights:

  • Teens who use social media more than 3 hours per day on social media have increased risk of developing depression and anxiety
  • A study on young adults who stopped using social media for 30 days reported increased:
    • Happiness
    • Life satisfaction
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
  • Teens who use social media for more than three hours a day also report:
    • Inadequate/disturbed sleep
    • Harassment
    • Low body image
    • Low self-esteem

One reason we share information on adolescents here is that soon, they’ll be adults. The mental health challenges they develop during adolescence can escalate during the college years and early adulthood, and we need to be ready to help treat these young adults if and when they seek support.

Another reason is that while adults readily point the finger at teens and young adults with regards to social media use, it’s plain for anyone to see that some adults spend as much or more time with their noses buried in their phones or on social media sites on their home computers. If social media time has a negative impact and adolescent mental health, it may have a negative impact on adult mental health too.

Therefore, we encourage adults to monitor and control their time on social media in the same way adults encourage teens and young adults to monitor theirs.

With that said, let’s move on to discuss the study “The Effect of Self-Monitoring Limited Social Media Use on Psychological Well-Being.”

Social Media and Mental Health on Campus

Researchers recruited 230 undergraduate students and divided them into two groups. Researchers instructed one group to restrict time on social media to 30 minutes a day and called it the treatment group. They instructed the other group – the control group – to use social media as usual.

The research team used standard psychiatric metrics to establish baseline levels of the following psychological and emotional states:

  • The Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)
  • The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CESD)
  • University of California, Los Angeles Loneliness Scale, Version 3 (UCLA-LS-3)
  • Fear of Missing Out. The Fear of Missing Out Scale (FOMOs). Yes, this is a real psychiatric metric. Studies show FOMO can have both a positive and negative impact on wellbeing.
  • Negative affect/Positive affect*. The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANS)

*Affect means mood or emotional state*

we dive into the results, let’s take a look at the social media habits of the college students before the study period.

Social Media Sites Used and Time on Site

  • Facebook
    • Percentage of users: 11%
    • Average time per day: 59 minutes
  • Instagram
    • Percentage of users: 22%
    • Average time per day: 57 minutes
  • LinkedIn
    • Percentage of users: 2%
    • Average time per day: 23 minutes
  • Pinterest
    • Percentage of users: 3%
    • Average time per day: 28 minutes
  • Reddit
    • Percentage of users: 3%
    • Average time per day: 44 minutes
  • Snapchat
    • Percentage of users: 21%
    • Average time per day: 80 minutes
  • TikTok
    • Percentage of users: 15%
    • Average time per day: 95 minutes
  • Tumblr
    • Percentage of users: 1%
    • Average time per day: 41 minutes
  • Twitter
    • Percentage of users: 5%
    • Average time per day: 64 minutes
  • YouTube
    • Percentage of users: 14%
    • Average time per day: 87 minutes

After establishing these baseline levels of social media type and time, researchers asked the participants in the treatment group to choose three sites and limit total use to 30 minutes a day. After 2 weeks of limiting, the researchers administered the same tests.

Let’s take a look at what they found.

Social Media Use and Mental Health: The Results

Spoiler alert:

“The self-monitored group showed significant improvements in their psychological well-being.”

But how significant were those improvements?

Here’s the data:

The Impact of Social Media Use on Mental Health

(Figures represent average scores for each group on the metrics listed above)


  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 42
    • Post: 43
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 41
    • Post: 37


  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 18.8
    • Post: 19.5
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 18.5
    • Post: 13.7


  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 2.6
    • Post: 2.5
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 2.5
    • Post: 2.3


  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 45.4
    • Post: 45.4
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 45.3
    • Post: 42.2

Negative Affect

  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 21.8
    • Post: 20.8
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 22.3
    • Post: 18.1

Positive Affect

  • Control Group:
    • Pre: 31.6
    • Post: 31.8
  • Treatment Group:
    • Pre: 31
    • Post: 33.1

The data tell the story: researchers observed significant reduction in every category except for FOMO. This is an important development in research on the impact of social media on mental health. Whereas previous studies focused on calculating the relationship between time on social media and mental health, with a focus on the negative consequences, this approach was different. Researchers used a proactive treatment protocol – self-limiting time on social media – and focused on mental health improvements as a result of regulation, as opposed to mental health challenges associated with excess use.

The researchers learned that it’s not only possible for college students to monitor and control their social media time, but it’s also possible for college students to improve their overall psychological wellbeing by restricting their social media time.

How We Can All Reduce Social Media Time to Improve Mental Health

We’ll circle back to something we mention in the beginning of this article: the fact that many adults and older adults spend a significant amount of time on social media. We encourage everyone who uses social media to take a step back and assess their time on social media with total honesty. We also encourage everyone to assess the way they use social media. Negative comparing – for appearance or social status – is not a health practice for anyone at any age.

It’s not just the kids who do it and need to stop: adults who negative compare need to consider stopping that behavior, too.

Another thing about this study that resonates is the practicality. Researchers advised the treatment group to limit their social media time to 30 minutes a day. They didn’t advise them to delete all apps, or never go on social media at all, or ask them to stay off their phones entirely. They recognized what previous data revealed: heavy use for some populations can create problems. In addition, they understood that limiting use to 30 minutes a day would allow study participants to engage in the aspects of social media we can all agree are positive: connecting with friends and family, watching silly videos, or laughing at creative memes.

The research team also recognized that limiting time on social media may not be easy. To help college students – and anyone – reduce their time on social media, study author Ella Faulhaber offers three simple suggestions.

Social Media and Mental Health: Three Tips to Reduce Use

  1. Use a timer. Most phones have timers or stopwatches that are easy to use. Set a timer for 30 minutes, and stop when it goes off. Or, it’s also easy to download a wellness app that tracks social media time.
  2. Be easy on yourself. It’s not easy to cut back on social media. Remember: the point of all the notifications and reminders is to keep your eyes on the site. Social media companies spend significant resources on keeping you engaged.
  3. Stick with it. It may be tempting to give up after one or two unsuccessful days of trying to limit your social media time. If you get frustrated, take a step back an remind yourself the benefits – improved overall psychological wellness – are worth the effort.

Again, this is good advice for all of us, not just teens, college students, or young adults. We can all benefit from taking our eyes off our screens and interacting directly – and more often – with the world around us and the people that make it interesting.