Researchers from Ruhr University Bochum decided to set up their experiment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and restrictions increased the usage of social media like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok as people sought to stay connected. These apps provided a welcome distraction from the insecurity and anxious reality of the pandemic but they have also built bad habits.
“Given that we don’t know for certain 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,” explains professor Dr Julia Brailovskaia, lead author of the study.
30 minutes of exercise instead of social media
The researchers recruited 642 volunteers and assigned them randomly to one of four groups for a 2-week experiment. Social media usage was tracked by an app installed on their phone and physical activity was tracked by fitness trackers.
- The first group reduced their daily social media consumption by 30 minutes with no change in physical activity.
- The second group increased the duration of physical activity by 30 minutes daily with no change in social media use.
- The third group combined both, replacing 30 minutes of social media time with 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
- The fourth group served as a control and didn’t change their behaviour during the 2-week intervention phase.
The study also evaluated mental health before, during and 6 months after the 2-week experiment using several validated scales such as The Satisfaction with Life Scale, Subjective Happiness Scale, Depression Anxiety Stress Scales 21, and the Covid-19 Burden Scale.
Less social media and more exercise improved well-being
The results spoke very clearly, well-being improved for every group except the control group. And especially the group that combined both social media reduction with an increase in physical activity showed increased satisfaction with life and subjective feeling of happiness and reduced depressive symptoms.
- The groups that either reduced social media or increased physical activity showed a reduced social media usage by 0,5 hours per day even 6 months after the experiment.
- The group that combined both interventions reduced their social media usage by 0,75 hours per day even 6 months after the experiment.
- The combination group also engaged 1 hour and 39 minutes more each week in physical activity than before the experiment.
“This shows us how vital it is to reduce our availability online from time to time and to go back to our human roots. These measures can be easily implemented into one’s everyday life and they’re completely free – and, at the same time, they help us to stay happy and healthy in the digital age,” concluded Dr Brailovskaia.
The results of this study aren’t exactly surprising. Most of us suspect that exercise usually makes us feel better than social media. But it never hurts to be reminded that this feeling is confirmed by an experiment, especially because making that change in real life can be hard. Now, the question is, are you going to cut back on social media in favour of more cycling?