People are generally spending more time on social media than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On average, social media users log around two and a half hours per day on social channels, according to 2022 research by Smart Insights. It is perhaps little surprise that many users are interested in trying a social media “cleanse”, also known as a detox.
Simply put a social media cleanse is time spent abstaining from Twitter, Facebook or other similar digital platforms. How long any given cleanse lasts is up to the user, and there is no clearly defined length of time. Some self-help guides suggest 30 days, while other people may take a break for just a week or as little as a few days.
The terms are loose, says Trine Syvertsen, a professor of media and communication at the University of Oslo in Norway and author of Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting. Some people may choose to log off from all social media entirely, while others might prefer to chose only a few apps.
Social media use, and overuse, are often linked with depression, anxiety and loneliness. Past research also connects it to increased stress and low moods, so taking a break can seem like a logical step to feeling better.
Last year researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. published a study in Cyberpsychology that found taking a week-long break from social media seemed to have self-reported “positive effects for wellbeing, depression, and anxiety” amongst 154 social media users. “This suggests that even just a small break can have an impact,” Jeff Lambert, with the University of Bath’s health department, said in a press release.
Another study from Denmark indicated that quitting Facebook for a week led to increased life satisfaction and more positive emotions among participants: “Furthermore, it was demonstrated that these effects were significantly greater for heavy Facebook users, passive Facebook users and users who tend to envy others on Facebook,” the paper reads.
In general, however, the evidence for how effective these breaks can be is mixed, says Theda Radtke, a professor of psychological health and applied diagnostics at the University of Wuppertal in Germany. She was part of a team that reviewed a range of studies on the topic. One of the issues is the way such studies are carried out, she said, as control groups are often lacking.
Some “promising results” were found in terms of reduction of overall rates of social media usage and depression symptoms, while other results were less clear, the researchers wrote. Vulnerable groups for instance — such as adolescents — can be at particular risk from overuse and may benefit from taking a break more than others.
Deeper Than the Detox
For Radtke, taking a break, cleansing or detoxing from social media can be a good starting point for those who believe use is interfering with their lives.
“But you should also go into detail about your own use to think about the wider problem,” she says. “Is it that you read every Facebook or Twitter post? Or is it that your partner is using their phone in front of you? Or is it all work-related? Then you should plan how to regulate this.”
As part of her own research, Syvertsen has found that these breaks are often “no quick-fix” for those who try them.
"[M]any people find it difficult and not very satisfactory,” she says. There can be many reasons for being online and depending on the level of connectivity you are used to, giving up can demand a lot of self-discipline, she adds.
That’s not to say logging off for a time won’t have an impact, but based on the evidence some expectations should be tempered and steps taken to delve deeper, say the researchers.
“I would say it's maybe not about only a break from electronical devices, it's also that you maybe should go more into detail and analyze your own behavior,” says Radtke.