Limiting Social Media Use in Youths Brings Challenges, Benefits

7 min read

June 26, 2023 – Amelia Kennedy, 19, of Royersford, PA, a point guard on the Catholic University of America basketball team who will begin her sophomore year in the fall, uses TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and You Tube regularly.

How regularly? She estimates 7 hours a day and about 9 on weekends. She’s aware of the time-wasting potential. “If my mom says, ‘Do dishes,’ and I say, ‘5 more minutes,’ it can be longer,’’ she said.

Now imagine the challenge of cutting that 7 or 9 hours a day of social media use down to 30 minutes.

A very tall order, considering a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of more than 1,300 teens found 35% are “nearly constantly” on at least one of the top five social media platforms: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.

Researchers from Iowa State University recently took on that daunting challenge, limiting a group of students to only 30 minutes of social media a day to see what happens. Two weeks into the study, the students reported improvement in psychological well-being and other important measures, including sleep quality, compared to a control group assigned to continue using social media as usual. 

And the dreaded FOMO, or fear of missing out, didn’t happen, the researchers said. At the end, the students were rethinking their social media use and feeling positive about it.

As social media becomes more common and youth mental health more endangered, experts are sounding the alarm. In late May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health, calling for tech companies to do better, policymakers to strengthen safety, and researchers to get more information, among other actions. 

After that, the Biden administration took actions including the launch of a task force on kids’ online health and safety. The American Psychological Association has issued recommendations on social media use in youths. And the Social Media Victims Law Center in Seattle has sued numerous social media companies for online activity resulting in death and other tragedies.

While experts acknowledge that much more research is needed to sort out how to balance social media’s risks and benefits to preserve youth mental health and prevent such disasters, the new Iowa State study, as well as other recent research, suggests that youths are aware of the dangers of social media and, given some guidance and information, can monitor themselves and limit their screen time to preserve mental health.

Goal: 30 Minutes a Day

In the Iowa State study, 230 undergraduate students were assigned to one of two groups, with 99 in the 30-minute-a-day social media use group and 131 in the “usual” or control group, which made no changes. For those in the intervention group, “we sent a daily reminder email,” said Ella Faulhaber, a PhD candidate at Iowa State and the study’s lead author. It simply reminded them to limit social medial use to the 30-minute maximum. 

At the study start and end, all participants provided a screenshot of their weekly social media usage time. The researchers gave both groups a battery of tests to assess anxiety, depression, loneliness, fear of missing out, and negative and positive feelings.

“By limiting their social media time, that resulted in less anxiety, less depression, less FOMO, fewer negative emotions, and greater positive emotions,” said Douglas Gentile, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State and a study co-author. “We know that it is the limiting [of] the social media that is causing that.”

Faulhaber recalled one participant who mentioned having trouble at first adjusting to the 30-minute time frame, but once sleep improved, it was easier to stick to that guidance. Another who gave up phone use at bedtime found: “Instead of looking at my phone, it was much easier to go straight to bed.”

Sleep improvements, of course, affect many parts of physical and mental health, Gentile said. And the study also showed that even with reduced screen time, “we can still get the benefit of being connected.” Those who didn’t make the 30-minute mark, but cut back, got benefits, too, the researchers said.

'Youth Are Aware'

Self-monitoring works, agreed Jane Harness, DO, an adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, because “having that insight is often the first step.”

In a study she conducted, Harness aimed to gather youths' insights about how their social media use affected them. With her colleagues, she asked more than 1,100 youths, ages 14 to 24, what advice they would give to those new to social media, if they ever felt they needed to change social media habits, and if they have deleted or considered deleting social media accounts.

From the 871 responses, Harness found that youths were especially concerned about safety online, that most had thought about deleting a social media app and some had, and that youths were more likely to say they wanted to change the amount of time spent on social media, compared to the content they view. 

“Users responded with great advice for each other,” she said. “Safety was brought up,” with users reminding others to keep accounts private and to be aware of location tracking links and content that seems to promote eating disorders, suicide, and other harms. 

In the study report, Harness concluded: “Youth are aware of ways in which social media could be negatively impacting them and they have employed methods to modulate their use because of this awareness.”

Less FOMO, Less Anxiety 

In an earlier study, University of Pennsylvania researchers had 143 college students self-monitor social media for a week, then randomly assigned them either to a group told to limit Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat use to 10 minutes per platform, per day, or to a group told to use social media as usual for 3 weeks.

At the end of the study, the researchers evaluated both groups and found “significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks’’ in the limited-use group, compared to the usual-use group, according to study researcher Melissa G. Hunt, PhD, associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania. 

And both groups showed declines in anxiety and fear of missing out, suggesting a benefit tied to self-monitoring itself, she said.

While Hunt's study focused on 30 minutes a day, she said “about an hour a day seems to be the sweet spot for maximizing the positive effects of connecting, but limiting the negative effects of social media use.” 

She also suggested that smartphones have no place in middle or high school classrooms. Instead, they should be on lockdown during classes.

“Parents need to set real limits of cellphone use during meals and in bedrooms,” Hunt said. At mealtime, for instance, all phones should be absent from the table. And after 10 p.m., “all family phones remain in the kitchen.”

Be 'More Mindful'

These recent study findings about self-monitoring and limiting social media time may not work the same for everyone, especially among those who aren’t as motivated, said psychiatrist Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, MD, team lead for the adolescent inpatient unit at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT. 

But “the bigger take-home piece is that being intentional and attempting to decrease the use in these individuals, even if they were not always successful, was clearly beneficial,” she said.

As we await clearer guidelines about what is the “right” amount of use in terms of social media content and time, Ortiz-Schwartz said, “becoming more mindful and aware of the risks and benefits can hopefully help individuals become more mindful and deliberate about its use.”

Real-World Strategies

Max Schwandt, 23, is an outlier, but a happy one. He works as a sales clerk at a Los Angeles-area recreational gear shop, and he uses no social media. Why not? “It takes up too much time,” he explained. As simple as that. 

But for many other teens and young adults, the struggle to stay off social media is real. 

Amelia Kennedy, the Catholic University of America student, is trying to reduce her screen time. One way is to track it on her phone. These days, her summer job at a restaurant serving breakfast gets her up early. “If I have to work, I still go on my phone, but not that long.” And once at work, she only has time for quick checks between work responsibilities. “I definitely am more productive,” she said about days when she has work.

Last December, Lauren Young, 25, whose father was a researcher on the Iowa State study, was finishing law school at Georgetown University and decided to take a break from social media for the entire month. “I can’t say I was always successful in avoiding it,” she said. But cutting down greatly “made me a lot more present in my day-to-day life, and it was easier to concentrate.”

She could even get through a meal, out with friends, without her phone, keeping it in her purse. That was a definite change from the norm. “I noticed I would go out to dinner and the standard for people my age is having the phone on the table. If you are being polite, you turn it over.”

During her social media “blackout,” Young had deleted TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook apps. Then, when she graduated, she had to reinstall to post a picture. But now, she is back to minimal social media use. 

“I’m studying for the bar, so it’s kind of necessary, but it always makes me happier.” She figures she can always text family and friends if necessary, instead of posting. “I felt for a while I was missing out on things, but not now,” she said.

Others, including Sarah Goldstein, 22, of Chatsworth, CA, a supermarket courtesy clerk who is thinking of returning to college, said she has developed a healthier attitude toward social media as she has gotten older. 

“In middle and early high school, I would see parties, things I wasn’t invited to, on Snapchat and Instagram.” While she realized there could be legitimate reasons for not being included, she said it was easy to internalize those feelings of being left out.

These days, she said she doesn’t let it impact her mental health that way. She enjoys social media – especially TikTok and Instagram – for its benefits. “It kills time, gives you something to watch, can make you laugh and feel like you have a connection with other people.”