Socially Balanced: How much time do you spend scrolling?

More than half of Americans (64%) say that social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. The national media often highlight the negative impacts of social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But what about the good? Can social media be healthy for us?

Before we get started on the good and the bad about social media, let’s take a look at who is using it and for what reasons. About 7 out of 10 Americans (72%)† have used social media at some point, and the most commonly used platforms are YouTube and Facebook. Not too surprisingly, young adults aged 18-29 are more likely to report using social media than older adults, particularly adults aged 65 years and older. Starting in 2009, women were slightly more likely to be social media users than men in the U.S.†, particularly on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok. Interestingly, men are more likely to use Twitter, Reddit and LinkedIn than women are. People use social media for many reasons, including social connection, activism, and getting news and information. But concerns about online harassment, the spread of misinformation and political censorship can give us pause about using social media. So, as we navigate the social media landscape, here are some reflections, observations and recommendations for healthy social media use.

One of the most frequently asked questions about social media and media use in general is about time limits and restrictions. How much is too much time spent with media? There has been much debate among physicians, particularly pediatricians, about the right amount of media use. While there are no specific recommended daily social media time limits, we can think about our consumption of media like our consumption of food and monitor our media diet similarly to how we watch our food diet. As much as we might want to eat unlimited amounts of ice cream, that would not be a healthy choice, and, in the long run, we would pay the consequences of choosing too much “sometimes” food. Our media choices are similar. We could spend hours scrolling through Instagram or Facebook or watching TikToks, but too much may take us away from other activities and opportunities for social interaction with family and friends or simple quiet time with ourselves. So, moderation in both food consumption and social media consumption is key to healthy living.

Some may even argue that social media use takes away time from healthier habits. Displacement theory suggests that time spent with electronic media, in this case social media specifically, displaces time spent in other pursuits, such as reading or exercise or studying. However, evidence shows media time does not displace other academic time or noble endeavors; rather, it is more likely to displace other leisure activities. Again, let’s think about our food diet. We may not choose an apple over ice cream, even though an apple is the healthier choice; rather, we may look for other sweet treats if our freezer is empty. If you find yourself spending a lot of time on social media, you may want to find other activities to support a healthy you.

Related to displacement theory is the notion of active versus passive social media use. Reading comments or discussions, watching videos and looking at pictures fall into the category of passive social media use. However, liking/favoriting/voting on content, sharing content with others, commenting or responding to posts and creating your own content are examples of active social media use. Research has shown that passive social media use†† is more frequently related to decreased well-being, including depression and social anxiety, than active social media use.

The combination of passive social media use and the troubling times of 2020 and beyond created the perfect storm for doomscrolling*, a term describing the tendency to continue to scroll through and read content on social media that is depressing or worrying, which can further contribute to decreased well-being. If you find yourself doomscrolling or passively using your social media, you may need to stop, take a break and find alternative activities. In other words, you need to assess not just how much time you are using social media, but how active you are in your social media use.

Additionally, you may want to consider intentionally curating the content that is filling your social media feed. This practice is called hopescrolling or joyscrolling.** You can block, mute or hide accounts and people that are not contributing to your well-being and add accounts and people that fill your social media feed with more fulfilling content. When you’re having a bad day, ask your friends to post joyful pictures (think puppies, kittens, flowers and sunshiny skies). I distinctly recall doing this exercise in my teaching during the early days of the pandemic. I was teaching a class on children and media and made an assignment for students to post to the discussion board pictures or videos of their favorite TV shows from when they were young. The discussion board filled with pictures that sparked happy memories and safe places and spaces at a time when we needed a stream of joy. I remember scrolling through that discussion board over and over, hearing the theme songs of the shows ring through my ears. It transported me to a place of comfort when I couldn’t leave my home. I hope this curation was as beneficial to my students as it was to me.

I am a professor, but I am a mom, too. Parents and guardians take on many roles to support their children’s growth and development, and they need to ensure that they serve as good role models with their media use. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers several recommendations for media use with children and highlights the need for parents to monitor their own social media use.

In addition, media left on in the background can be distracting for families and caregivers and interfere with cognitive and social development. The AAP has developed a resource called the Family Media Plan that families can use to develop a blueprint for healthy media choices. Guardians can adapt it to meet the needs of each individual and the whole family. Another organization that provides resources for parents, caregivers and teachers about media, including social media, is Common Sense Media. It features reviews of media content, including books, apps, movies, television, and games, and the latest research on developments in children’s media use.

Whether you are a parent or guardian, grandparent, aunt or sister, talking about and modeling healthy media habits can be a powerful way to have a positive influence on your community, both online and offline. Consider the ways in which you use media and how it may be impacting you and those around you. What type of media diet do you have? Is it healthy for you and those you care about? Social media holds a space to both influence you and for you to influence others. What kind of influence do you want to be?


Pew Research Center

††Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking



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