If you wish to spend less time on social media in the new year, figure out why

As a resolution, consider putting the phone away and making better use of all those hours

A common sight: browsing social media on phones at the cost of real human interactions. Getty
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The tradition of making New Year's resolutions stretches back centuries. In ancient Babylon, as the new year rolled in, people would repay old debts, right past wrongs and drop bad habits. Even our English word for January is derived from Janus, the two-faced Roman deity associated with beginnings, doorways and transitions. For many of us, New Year's Eve remains a doorway, a transitional portal to new and improved lifestyles.

For decades the same resolutions have topped the list: lose weight, quit smoking, become fit, save more money. However, in recent years, a new resolution has joined the ranks: a desire to quit social media, or at least to spend less time on it. I occasionally catch myself scrolling through my feed meaninglessly. And so for 2020, I have resolved to refine my habits and not squander time.

Going public with resolutions makes them harder to break as we deepen our commitment and increase the cost of failure, adding the threat of social embarrassment into the motivational mix 

The idea that many of us want to spend less time scrolling through feeds is reflected in the results of a Pew Research Center survey last year. The survey asked 743 US teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 about their digital consumption. A substantial 41 per cent felt that they spent too much time online. More than half these teens, 57 per cent, reported that they had been trying to cut down on social media.

A similar survey undertaken in the UK earlier this year suggests the same patterns among adults, with 35 per cent reporting attempts to reduce the time they spend online. There are also long lists of celebrities either "taking a break" or deactivating their accounts and leaving altogether. Some vanish for good while others like the American rapper Kanye West tend to reappear. In April, politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave up Facebook, suggesting that "social media poses a public health risk to everybody". 

There is substantial evidence linking problematic social media use with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior states that it was not simply about how much time we spent on social media but also how we engaged with it, whether we were active or passive, consuming information intentionally or aimlessly.

If we are planning to reduce the time we spend on our phones, we might consider cutting out the indiscriminate access, that is, opening an app for no reason. We could also reduce passive scrolling: viewing content without commenting, liking or interacting, the sort of patterns that most strongly predict psychological problems. Skimming through people's updates just before going to bed is also problematic. And if opening apps is the first thing we do in the morning, it is best not to sleep with the phone by our bedside.

Changing habits can be difficult, especially when they become ingrained. However, a few simple steps can tip the balance in our favour. Turning off notifications, for example, can help. Or better still, deleting apps from the phone and accessing media from a computer by logging in anew each time. If a task becomes more inconvenient, we are less likely to do it without good reason. 

The time we save by not engaging in passive consumption of social media could be used in fruitful ways. It could also improve our quality of sleep and reduce the risk of developing eating disorders, not to mention help our self-esteem by sparing us our ill-made comparisons with other people. Reducing scrolling time would mean less time spent in a state of Fomo  fear of missing out. Spending time away from browsing updates might also do wonders for the quality of our relationships, online and offline. Meeting friends without having already read their online updates gives us more to talk about. And commenting on content instead of merely scrolling is likely to lead to more meaningful and enriching interactions.

It is ultimately up to us though whether we can embark on this self-improvement and commit to it in the new year. And if we are going to try, we might want to tell the world about it. Research suggests that going public with resolutions makes them harder to break as we deepen our commitment and increase the cost of failure, adding the threat of social embarrassment into the motivational mix. 

If we are planning to quit or modify our social media use in 2020, how likely are we to succeed? A study exploring resolution-keeping published in the Journal of Substance Abuse found that only 19 per cent of resolution-makers maintained their pledges after two years. One in five of us will fail within two years, most within the first few weeks.

Behavioural change takes effort and it helps to keep in mind why we are making those changes in the first place. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: "He who has a why can deal with any how." Going into the new year, if we remain mindful of the reason for wanting a change, we are more likely to pull through.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University