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Stressed Out? Take a Short Break From Social Media

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A recently published study by Ofir Turel, professor of information systems and decision sciences, found that abstaining from social networking sites for a brief period of time reduces perceived stress, especially among those who use such sites excessively.

Turel studies social media use and the neuroscience underlying it.

Social networking sites are designed to reward humans neurologically so they continue to use the platform. Positive rewards such as likes and retweets are administered on a variable, intermittent schedule, which produces the strongest reinforcement, explains Turel.

For some individuals, the reinforcement reaches a level that could be called addictive, experiencing compulsion, withdrawal, tolerance and other addiction-like symptoms. People in this group are often aware that their use of social media is problematic and harmful to their lives, and they feel stressed about it.

Turel wanted to test whether a hiatus from social media would reduce this feeling of stress.

“It is important to study abstinence from social media for two prime reasons,” he explains. “First, we see many kids, adults and families struggling with staying away from electronic devices. But we do not know what happens to them when they do manage to abstain, even for a short while.

“Second, there is a growing body of evidence that excessive technology use can sometimes be addictive, and produce addiction-like symptoms in some users. Hence, there is a need to examine possible similarities and differences between excessive use of technologies and addictive disorders. Self-imposed abstinence is a common response to problematic and addictive behaviors. It is therefore one aspect that, if examined, can point to such similarities and differences.”

The research was conducted among 555 students age eighteen or older, who used Facebook as their primary social media site. The students were recruited from an introductory-level course at a U.S. university. The test group was asked to abstain from Facebook for one week.

The short-term hiatus from Facebook did reduce perceived stress in the absolute. Excessive users were less successful at abstaining, notes Turel, but their absolute and relative stress reductions were significantly larger.

“I hope this study initiates more research on the effects (positive and negative) of abstinence from technology use (also known as technology detox),” says Turel. “We are seeing detox camps and online movements that support less — and even no technology use — but we simply do not know yet the effects of taking a break from technologies. The findings suggest that short breaks can benefit users, at least in terms of stress, and can be considered especially by people with excessive use patterns.”

The paper, “Short Abstinence From Online Social Networking Sites Reduces Perceived Stress, Especially in Excessive Users,” was a collaboration between Cal State Fullerton information systems and decision sciences faculty Ofir Turel and Daniel R. Cavagnaro, and Dar Meshi, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University. It was published in November 2018 in Psychiatry Research, a peer-reviewed medical journal.