Social media can be a great way to stay connected with friends and family. At times, though, it can start to feel overwhelming, time-consuming and even emotionally depleting.
Sound familiar? Taking a break — whether for a few hours or a few months — can help you rest, recharge and feel more in control.
How social media use affects your mental health and your sleep
Given how embedded technology (including social media) is in our lives, it can be easy to lose sight of how much time we devote to it. According to one recent survey by Meltwater, that equates to about two hours and 15 minutes of time using social media each day. And the user base is not small: Data from the Pew Research Center shows that close to three-fourths of U.S. adults use at least one social media platform; the numbers are even higher for teenagers. Forbes reported that in 2020 Americans spent an average of more than 1,300 hours on social media. And a worldwide survey looking at time spent on social media from 2012 to 2022 showed that last year people spent an average of 147 minutes per day on the platforms.
But whether it’s watching a funny video, staying in contact with friends or catching up on the latest news, those hours on social media add up. That can be great if you’re idly scrolling to pass time while you’re waiting for the bus, but not so good if it’s keeping you up late or cutting into other activities.
Checking for news and updates can quickly morph into doomscrolling, leading down a time-consuming rabbit hole of information that makes us unhappy. And it’s not just doom-and-gloom topics that take a toll: Even lighter pursuits, such as playing Wordle or scrolling through Instagram posts, can be time-consuming, keeping us from getting to bed at a reasonable hour. (This widespread use of electronic devices before bed even has a name: revenge bedtime procrastination.)
And once you do finally unplug for the night, you may find it hard to fall asleep. That’s due to two factors: the alerting effect of blue light from your screen, along with the emotional stimulation of being online — everything from the alertness of playing a video game to seeing a post that triggers fear of missing out (FOMO.)
Seeing what our friends and acquaintances are up to can trigger feelings of missing out or envy, explains Terri Bacow, a New York-based psychologist and the author of “Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.” According to Bacow, “We may see someone’s posts and feel that they’re doing a lot better than us, that they’re living their best lives. But we’re not really seeing the context. And the context might be: You see someone on a trip and it looks amazing, but you’re not seeing the food poisoning, or the lost luggage, or the delayed flight.”
Social media use has also been linked to depression and anxiety in both adults and teens. And it can become a vicious cycle, with social media’s mental-health impacts further eroding sleep, which in turn affects mental wellness and can intensify depression and anxiety.
For teens, these feelings can be even more pronounced. One recent study notes that teens may be uniquely prone to the impact of social media on their mental health due to the developmental changes that take place during adolescence. That’s in part because teen brains aren’t yet fully developed: As a result, teens are even more primed than adults for reward-seeking behaviors such as getting “likes” on social media posts; additionally, they don’t yet have the executive functioning capabilities to help temper emotions.
Is it time to take a break?
If any of this sounds familiar, taking a break can be a great way to give yourself an emotional reset.
“You know it’s time to take a social media break when social media is making you feel bad,” says Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World” and the forthcoming book “Growing Up in Public.” Heitner says, “Whether it’s the sharing and comparing, whether it’s bringing you down about some circumstance in your life, whether it’s making you frustrated politically...any of those could mean that it’s time to take a break and channel [that time] into other actions.”
If what you’re seeing online taps into something that was already a concern, others’ successes or happy news can end up making you feel worse. If that’s the case, Heitner recommends taking “forward action” — even if it’s small — rather than just being in reactive mode. “If you feel really bummed that you’re not getting a vacation, can you go take a walk or get out in nature?” she suggests.
Even if you haven’t yet identified what specifically is bothering you, simply recognizing that your online time is having a detrimental effect is an important first step. As Bacow explains, “It’s empowering to say, ‘This is too much. I need to take a break; I need some space from this.’”
How to take a break from social media
Stepping away from social media doesn’t have to be forever — in fact, it doesn’t even have to be more than a few hours, if that’s what works for you.
If I’m scrolling and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed, I stop and put my phone away,” Bacow says. “I’ll just exit the app and maybe not look at it for a few hours.”
Other options include turning off notifications, setting a timer for yourself, or silencing specific apps at a set time. (Instagram even recently added a “quiet mode” that sends an auto-reply to let others know that you’re temporarily unavailable.)
For some, simply cutting back the amount of time they spend on social media may be enough. According to a 2018 study, setting a 30-minute daily limit can be enough to decrease feelings of loneliness and depression.
It can also be helpful to delete specific apps from your phone, especially if that’s how you primarily access social media, says Heitner. Knowing you can still access them from a computer if needed can feel less drastic than completely unplugging, she adds. This is especially helpful for many teens, since sending direct messages through apps like Instagram is the primary way to stay in contact with friends; unlike adults, they may not even have their friends’ phone numbers, she points out.
And what if you do want to disengage for a longer period? One recent study found that a one-week social-media break was enough to decrease depression and anxiety and increase well-being. And of course, you may decide that you want to stay offline longer or even permanently delete certain apps.
Regardless of when — or if — you do decide to reengage, remember that the postings you see on social media are a reflection of what each app’s algorithm has prioritized for you. “Social media can bring people to mind who aren’t actually important to you,” Heitner says. “Is it important to you that your best friend from camp had a baby?” If the updates you’re seeing aren’t from the people you’d prioritize in your life, you might be better off streamlining your feed accordingly and making it a priority to connect offline.
The bottom line when it comes to taking a social media break is that you should do what makes sense for your habits and mental health. “There is no one method that works for everyone,” Bacow says. “Decide what level of break you need to feel OK, and regroup before you go back to it.”