Experian Hitwise, specialists in measuring online behaviours, report a significant global dip in social media activity during July and August. In one of our own studies, published in the Journal of Big Data in 2019, we report the exact same pattern for the UAE, based on Twitter data. So why does summer see a slowdown on social media? Perhaps it’s because people travel, spend time with loved ones, and take a break from school or work. Whatever the reason, spending less time on social media is starting to look like a healthy choice for many of us.
According to Statistica, as of January this year, a little more than half the global population – about 4.2 billion people – are active social media users. A growing body of research also suggests that a minority of these social media users will develop unhealthy relationships with their platforms of choice. Researchers coined the term "problematic social media use", or PSMU, to describe such behavioural patterns. For example, when the use of social media negatively impacts a person’s relationships or work, we might start talking about PSMU.
A large international study published in Computers in Human Behaviour in 2021 suggests that between five and 13 per cent of social media users can be classed as “problematic users”. There is, however, a huge difference in the rate of PSMU from one nation to the next. For instance, relatively collectivist societies, such as those in the Middle East and Far East, report higher rates of PSMU than their individualistic counterparts in North America and northern Europe. This is an area for future research, but one theory suggests it might be because collectivist values such as maintaining extended family connections lead to greater social media use, reflected in higher rates of PSMU.
There are also growing concerns that excessive and more compulsive use of social media can harm our mental health. The rising rates of depression among young people in the US, and other nations, have given rise to the idea that PSMU may be implicated. A study published in Clinical Psychological Science in 2018 connected the rising rates of US teen depression and suicide between 2010 and 2015 with the increased use of social media during the same period. The study was based on data from more than half a million adolescents (ages 13 to 18). The research team found that teens who spent more time on social media were more likely to report mental health issues. Conversely, those spending more time on non-screen activities – for example, in-person social interaction, sports, homework, print media and so on – were less likely to report such problems.
Other studies exploring the PSMU-mental health link have gone further by following people up over time. In one such longitudinal study, PSMU and depression were assessed at three separate intervals over 24 months. Changes – increases or decreases – in PSMU were linked to corresponding changes in depressive symptoms. Such results suggest that targeting or reducing PSMU may help prevent the onset of depression.
Beyond depression, PSMU has also been associated with sleep problems. In a UK study of 855 adults, 70 per cent reported using social media after going to bed, with 15 per cent doing so for an hour or more. This nocturnal social media use was clearly associated with insomnia and shorter sleep durations. The psychological and physical health consequences of poor sleep quality and insomnia are well documented, with links to depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease and more.
Another growing concern with social media is the phenomenon of distracted driving. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death worldwide for people between the ages of five and 29. We don’t know what percentage of car accidents involve phone use or social media use. Still, we know that individuals with PSMU are at greater risk of ever having been involved in a motor vehicle accident. In one study published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions in 2017, PSMU was associated with almost a two-fold increase in motor vehicle accidents. The same was also true for falls, trips and collisions while walking. Data reported in 2019 by the US's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that around one in five road traffic accidents are caused by distracted driving. Texting is the most frequently mentioned form of distraction.
Of course, the list of benefits we can obtain from social media is equally long: sharing ideas, connecting with loved ones, meeting new people and more. Some studies even report a sweet spot where a certain amount of social media use is associated with better well-being.
Nobody is advocating trying to put the genie back in the bottle. With 4.2 billion active users, we are way past the tipping point. Instead, many people, including several well-known tech giants, advocate a greater awareness of digital well-being and healthier relationships with social media platforms and the other tools and toys of our online age.
The summer slowdown is a great time to reflect on our social media habits, perhaps explore some of the emerging digital well-being tools provided by Google and others. Social media is a mind-altering technology, understanding how it impacts us psychologically and how best to manage it is time well spent.