The World’s New Popular Past Time
According to Statistica, “As of 2016, daily social media usage of global internet users amounted to 118 minutes per day, up from 109 daily minutes in the previous year.” (1) New York Times reports that amount of time on Facebook alone is averaging about 50 minutes a day. eMarketer had a lower estimate for Americans in 2016, citing an average of 22 minutes a day on Facebook and 50 minutes total time per day across all social media.
Business Insider estimates this amounts to 20% of American’s time spent online, whereas a survey by Global Web Index (GWI) reports that globally, 30% of our time on the web is occupied by our virtual connections. This means that worldwide, GWI estimates that social networking (online TV, online press, online radio, and other digital consumption) engages people’s attention for approximately two hours daily. Experts are citing that phone apps are one reason that virtual connections are increasing in popularity. This is also probably contributing to the fact that Americans are “attached to their phones,” checking them approximately 17 times a day (2) (3).
The Health Implications of “Being Connected”
In a recent survey of 505 subject, participants were asked to report on their average time spent on the internet. The average time logged was approximately 40 hours a week, which is probably not a surprise to many who work at desk jobs. However, I would not be surprised if this is underreported. This is because biases can exist with subjects self-reporting data, in generalizing those studied to other populations (this sample was recruited online), statistical errors, and other factors.
Regardless of the amount of time we spend online, it appears that more is not better for a lot of reasons, emotional and physical. In this same study, authors concluded that approximately 30% of the sample displayed mild or moderate levels of internet addiction, as measured by the Internet Addiction Test (IAT). Furthermore, when assessing other measures in relationship to “problematic usage of the internet,” it was found that use of the internet was associated with changes in mood levels, sleep, immune function, and social connection. The authors state:
The internet problems were strongly related to all of the other psychological variables such as depression, anxiety, social-isolation, and sleep problems. Internet addiction was also associated with reduced self-reported immune function, but not with the measure of general health (GHQ-28). This relationship between problematic internet use and reduced immune function was found to be independent of the impact of the co-morbidities. It is suggested that the negative relationship between level of problematic internet use and immune function may be mediated by levels of stress produced by such internet use, and subsequent sympathetic nervous activity, which related to immune-supressants, such as cortisol. (4)
In a 2015 interventional study in Denmark, one group of subjects were instructed to take a break from Facebook while controls continued with their usual use. It was found that those who took a break enjoyed more positive moods and an increase in life satisfaction. However, the study was only one week in duration, so time is a limitation.
Although one study can’t prove that internet usage was the cause of decreasing emotional well-being, association studies are also stacking up. In another study, researchers found a link between time spent on Facebook and depression. Gender interactions were also investigated. (5)
Highlights from a study in Computers and Human Behavior reported that social media was the factor connected to low mood, over internet browsing:
- Facebook activity negatively correlates with mood.
- Facebook use but not Internet browsing dampens mood.
- A feeling of having wasted time accounts for the effect of Facebook activity on mood.
- People commit a forecasting error by expecting to feel better after Facebook use.
In a systematic review of 30 empirical studies which assessed the relationship between online social networking and symptoms of depression, it was stressed that health effects are complicated and may be related to how one uses social networking:
The findings suggest that the relationship between online social networking and symptoms of depression may be complex and associated with multiple psychological, social, behavioral, and individual factors. Furthermore, the impact of online social networking on wellbeing may be both positive and negative, highlighting the need for future research to determine the impact of candidate mediators and moderators underlying these heterogeneous outcomes across evolving networks. (6)
The authors reported that negative comparison and frequent posting were associated with depression through increased rumination (Science Daily). Furthermore, Science Daily also listed some other factors that made some Facebook users more at risk for low mood including subjects that:
- Felt envy triggered by observing others (this study was one which reported such a connection)
- Accepted former partners as Facebook friends
- Made negative social comparisons
- Made frequent negative status updates
Gender and personality also impacted risk, with women and neurotics more likely to be depressed. (7)
It’s Not All Bad
- The authors of the above review cautioned not to forget that online activity could also be a mental health resource for enhanced social support. (7)
- Another study reported that having control of self-presentation on digital media could contribute to self-esteem and “intensified relationship formation.”
The Social “Detox” to Nourish Healthy Relationships
Our electronics have influence on our health in other ways. For example, a study of 1788 US adults (aged 19-32) found that most young people spend 61 minutes on average online and 57% of them reported problems with sleeping.
Dr. Hyman also links to some wonderful studies that associate the use of social media to unwanted health consequences and the downfalls of complete substitution of virtual connections to satisfying live relationship in his recent blog on taking a “digital detox.” I also reviewed in my own blog some of the benefits of nurturing social connections in real time.
Below are some suggestions offered by Dr. Hyman to mitigate the health impact of our cultures obsessive need to stay “in-touch.” These include:
- Setting a timer to the amount of time spent online and to remind you to get up and move away from the screen. Walking has been associated in several experiments to increase creativity.
- Putting your cell phone on silence to focus on the task at hand.
- Quit TV – many can stand to decrease the amount of time in front of the television and more time in live activities.
- Move in a way that you love to boost health. (8)
I’d like to add:
- Inhale some essential oils to help balance your mood and physiology. Taking a deep breath also helps with relaxation and assists with health and well-being…potentially decreasing the need to reach for external cues online.
May you have some wonderful “live” relationships in 2017.