A Social Media Break May Be Exactly What Your Mental Health Needs

It's no secret that the past few years have been rough ones. We've seen worldwide turmoil, isolation, and fear, which means stress levels are soaring. A brief from the World Health Organization reports that back in 2020 when we were enduring the first year of the pandemic, anxiety and depression spiked by more than 25% worldwide.

At the same time, society flocked online to maintain human connection, ballooning the already significant role of social media. Channels like Facebook, Instagram, and triumphant newcomer TikTok now eat up huge swathes of our daily lives. More than half the population on the globe uses some form of social media, spending an average of almost two and a half hours scrolling these sites and apps each day (via Smart Insights).

But as crucial as digital communication has been recently, there is also a dark side to this prevalence of social media, which may be making our stress and anxiety worse instead of better. So, if you're looking for a way to support your mental health, a social media break may be just what the doctor ordered.

Can social media be bad for you?

Social media can be an important way to stay in touch with friends and family, especially if you live far apart. However, this may be the case for the old adage "all good things in moderation," as social media can also have some distinct downsides.

One of the biggest issues with excessive social media use is social comparison — our tendency to compare our lives to those idealized versions we see others post online. By pitting our self-image against the highlights shared by friends and influencers, we open the door to doubt, anxiety, negative body image, and low self-esteem, which can then lead to destructive habits like eating disorders (via The JED Foundation).

Attached constantly to our phones, tablets, and computer screens, we've even come up with new nuances to quantify our digital addiction with terms like "doomscrolling." A prime example of negative social media activity, doomscrolling is our instinct to run toward bad news online, instead of away from it. "We are all hardwired to see the negative and be drawn to the negative because it can harm us physically," psychiatrist Ken Yeager, Ph.D., tells Health about this phenomenon. "We can sense danger. It helps us survive." Before you know it, you've fallen down a depressing internet rabbit hole, searching out every gory detail in a primal attempt to somehow protect yourself from harm.

Ultimately, social media addiction isn't just a turn of phrase — it's now being recognized by major players in the mental health sphere, who are raising the alarm. Psychologists estimate that as much as 10% of Americans partake in compulsive, addiction-signaling behavior around social media (via Addiction Center). So, how can you interrupt this cycle? It may help to hit pause on your constant social media presence.

The benefits of a social media break

Also referred to as a social media detox or cleanse, treating yourself to a digital break can be a welcome respite for your mental health. Research published in the Libyan Journal of Medicine has suggested that a social media detox can support "a positive change in mood, reduced anxiety, and improved sleep."

Even logging off for a single week can reduce your stress, according to another recent study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Participants enjoyed more free time, recovering up to nine hours that would have disappeared into the social media black hole, and, as the study cites, they also reported "significant improvements in well-being, depression, and anxiety."

If you want to take a social media break, the first thing to do is decide how long of a cleanse you need. Many people like to detox for a month, but others may cut ties for up to a year. If you're nervous, you can start small. For example, set your goal for one week, and then extend it at the end of that week.

The key to success in any social media detox is consistency, so there are a few steps you can take to help yourself avoid slipping back into old habits without meaning to. For shorter breaks, delete all social media apps from your phone so it's difficult to mindlessly thumb them open. For longer breaks, you may also want to disable your accounts online. The more obstacles you create in returning to social media, the easier it will be to maintain your distance. If and when you do return, consider purging negative influences from your social accounts to help preserve your perspective and positive sense of self.