Replacing social media use with physical activity — ScienceDaily

If you spend 30 minutes less on social media each day and engage in physical activity instead, you’re doing a lot to improve your mental health. This is shown by a study carried out by a team from the Center for Mental Health Research and Treatment at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum led by Assistant Professor Dr. Julia Brailovskaia. Participants who followed this advice for two weeks felt happier, more satisfied, less stressed by the Covid-19 pandemic and less depressed than a control group. These effects even lasted six months after the study ended. The researchers published their findings in the Public Health Journal September 2, 2022.

The downside of social media

In times of confinement and contact restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, social networks like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have made sure that we always feel connected to others. They distracted us from the stress caused by the pandemic, which has caused anxiety, insecurity and despair in many people. But social media consumption also has its drawbacks. Intensive use can lead to addictive behavior which manifests itself, for example, in a close emotional connection to social media. Additionally, fake news and conspiracy theories can spread out of control on social media and trigger even more anxiety.

“Since we don’t know for sure how long the coronavirus crisis will last, we wanted to know how to protect people’s mental health with services that are as free and low-threshold as possible,” says Julia Brailovskaia. To find out if the type and duration of social media use may contribute, she conducted an experimental study as part of her fellowship at the Center for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS).

A two-week experience

She and her team recruited a total of 642 volunteers, randomly assigning them to one of four roughly equal-sized groups. The first group reduced daily social media consumption by 30 minutes during a two-week intervention period. As previous studies had shown that physical activity could increase well-being and reduce depressive symptoms, the second group increased the duration of physical activity by 30 minutes per day during this period, while continuing to use the social media as usual. The third group combined the two, reducing social media use and increasing physical activity. A control group did not change behavior during the intervention phase.

Before, during, and up to six months after the two-week intervention phase, participants completed online surveys about the duration, intensity, and emotional significance of their social media use, physical activity , their life satisfaction, their subjective sense of happiness, depressive symptoms, the psychological burden of the Covid-19 pandemic and their cigarette consumption.

Healthy and happy in the age of digitalization

The results clearly showed that reducing the time spent on social media each day and increasing physical activity have a positive impact on people’s well-being. Importantly, the combination of the two interventions increases life satisfaction and subjective feelings of happiness and reduces depressive symptoms. The effects last a long time: even six months after the end of the two-week intervention phase, participants in all three intervention groups spent less time on social media than before: namely about half an hour in the groups that had either reduced social media time or increased their daily exercise, and about three-quarters of an hour in the group that had combined the two measures. Six months after the intervention, the combined group engaged in one hour and 39 minutes more each week in physical activity than before the experiment. The positive influence on mental health continued throughout the follow-up period.

“It shows us how vital it is to reduce our online availability from time to time and return to our human roots,” concludes Julia Brailovskaia. “These measures can be easily implemented in everyday life and they are completely free – and, at the same time, they help us stay happy and healthy in the digital age.”

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Material provided by Ruhr-University of Bochum. Original written by Meike Drießen; translated by Donata Zuber. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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