Social media has become a nearly inescapable facet of daily life in 2022, and many of us probably spend much more time on apps like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok than we might like—sometimes to our detriment.
Many celebrities, including Jonah Hill and Tom Holland, have announced breaks from social media in the past few weeks, citing mental health struggles. It begs the question: Is logging off social media for a few days, weeks, or months the best solution to develop a healthier relationship with the app?
Here’s what experts had to say about how social media can be linked to negative mental health issues like anxiety or depression, how to use social media in a healthier way, and if following in Holland’s and Hill’s footsteps is the best course of action.
Connection Between Social Media and Mental Health Issues
Holland, 26, best known for his role in Marvel's Spiderman films, shared on Instagram August 13 that he would no longer be active on the app.
“I find Instagram and Twitter to be overstimulating, to be overwhelming, I get caught up and I spiral when I read things about me online and ultimately it’s very detrimental to my mental state,” Holland said in the Instagram video. “So I decided to take a step back and delete the app.”
In his farewell video, Holland promoted a U.K. organization called Stem4, which offers apps to help teens struggling with their mental health. The actor added that seeking help is “much easier said than done,” but he encouraged others to prioritize mental health care if they need it.
Days later, 38-year-old Hill decided to take a break from any kind of self promotion, he said in a statement to Deadline on August 17. Hill recently made a documentary called Stutz, which follows his mental health journey as he works with a therapist, which he credits as the reason for his social media break.
"Through this journey of self-discovery within the film," Hill explained, "I have come to the understanding that I have spent nearly 20 years experiencing anxiety attacks, which are exacerbated by media appearances and public-facing events."
Hill hasn’t been super active on social media in recent years, calling Instagram “a killer” in a GQ interview last summer. Hill’s Instagram account has been fully deleted, while Holland’s is currently inactive.
This idea that social media may be exacerbating mental health issues is backed up by research, according to Melissa Hunt, PhD, associate director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
She pointed to a 2018 study she and her colleagues authored, that found a link between the two.
"There was a very good amount of evidence showing a correlation between social media use and poor mental health and low levels of wellbeing," Hunt told Health. "People who used a great deal of social media tended to be more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and loneliness, to social anxiety, to fear of missing out, and so on and so forth."
Going further, Hunt said that she and her team also found evidence that social media may actually have a hand in causing mental health issues—and that getting rid of it could ease them.
"For people who had started out the study with mild to moderate levels of depressive symptoms, limiting their time on social media resulted in a significant improvement in mood," Hunt said.
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A Different Experience for Celebrities on Social Media
Though Holland and Hill mentioned that engaging in social media and public engagements can feel overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, their celebrity likely makes this relationship between mental health issues and social media more complex.
"I think celebrities have, by definition, a different relationship with social media, because the expectation is that they will be followed by tens of thousands of strangers," Hunt said. "That's not the case for the average person."
Back in the fall of 2021, Hill posted on Instagram asking fans to “not comment on his body,” following his weight loss. Receiving floods of comments from hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers could make anyone overwhelmed, Hunt added.
In addition to the sheer amount of followers and public scrutiny that celebrities have to manage, she explained that many use social media as a public relations and marketing tool. Weighing the decision between taking a break from social media and promoting your next project is likely not a simple one.
"I give them tremendous credit for knowing that they need to step away and take a break," Hunt said.
How Social Media Can Turn Harmful
Even though celebrities' experience on social media is very different, there are a number facets of the app that can certainly harm anyone, no matter how famous.
This constant comparison to others or need for validation from others on social media is one potentially harmful aspect, explained Lucía Magis-Weinberg, MD, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
"We now can quantify our interactions. We know how many likes you got, how many likes I got, how popular you are, how popular I am—we now can put a number on that," Dr. Magis-Weinberg told Health. "That really is associated with stress, is associated with depression, with anxiety, definitely."
In addition to the social comparison, Dr. Magis-Weinberg added that the public nature of social media can be a cause for concern. People have to curate what they say or post, knowing that an unknown number of eyes could be seeing it, and they're expected to be constantly available.
Social media apps can also make us feel like we're missing out on the other amazing and curated lives that others are living. This is not accidental, Hunt explains.
"One of the things that people often forget, is that if the product is free, you're actually the product that's being sold," Hunt said. "Going down the rabbit hole of feeling bad so that you are then a ripe target for advertisers […] that is the company's business model."
Seeing lots of strangers' content online—celebrities or influencers, for example—can cause low self esteem or even body image issues, Hunt said, which may make us more likely to interact with or purchase products.
The other reason that social media is so harmful to our mental health, Hunt and Dr. Magis-Weinburg added, is because it's a drain on our free time.
"We always need to ask ourselves: what is social media taking time from? Is it taking time from exercise? Is it taking time from sleep, which is so important for mental health? Is it taking time from in-person connections?" Dr. Magis-Weinberg asked. "When social media starts competing with all these things [that] we know we need for our health, then it's when we start being concerned."
Social media's negative impacts may not just stop with mental health, either.
A study from early 2022 found that people who self-reported using social media more often had higher levels of chronic inflammation and more doctor’s visits, among other things.
Dr. Magis-Weinberg and Hunt agree that more studies need to be done on the connection between social media use and negative physical health, but they speculate that a number of health issues could be consequences of these apps—everything from high inflammation due to stress, to living a more sedentary life.
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Determining Your Own Healthy Social Media Boundaries
With all of the negative mental health issues and low moods frequently associated with social media, our gut reaction may be to follow Holland's and Hill's examples and delete our accounts altogether. However, doing a social media "detox" or taking a complete break from the app for a certain period of time may not always be the best solution.
If you're attributing all of your mental health woes to social media—and then getting rid of any offending apps—you're using social media as a scapegoat and not managing the problem as a whole, Dr. Magis-Weinberg explained.
In reality, a variety of things influence a person’s mental health, including in-person interactions, physical health, socioeconomic level, and family history, to name a few.
Social media is also not all bad for all people. "If you're in need of social support, if you're in a marginalized community, and [social media is] how you're communicating with people who are understanding and supporting, you can't just completely log off," Dr. Magis-Weinberg said. "These communities can be incredibly helpful as well for support, for finding friends. So yeah, it's not all dark or bright."
This online connection has become even more important during the pandemic, she added—especially as people continue having to isolate if they contract COVID.
Because of those positive benefits, limiting daily social media usage rather than going cold turkey and deleting your apps may be more beneficial—and sustainable.
"What the research really suggests is that there is a sweet spot for social media use somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes a day," Hunt said. "It's being mindful of the time you're spending, not spending too much time, and most importantly, using it well."
One of the best ways to do this is to let your phone work for you. Both Android and Apple phones have different versions of apps that help you monitor your screen time.
For Android phones, the Digital Wellbeing app can help you manage your time in apps, as well as on your Google Chrome browser. Similarly, you can set up Screen Time on Apple iPhones to set limits for app and phone use, as well as communication limits.
So how do you know if it's time to start reining in your time spent on social media? Start paying attention to how it really makes you feel.
“If you’re spending a lot of time on social media, and you’re not feeling good as a result, you have to take…action to prevent that from happening,” Celeste Kidd, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Health.
Overall, navigating healthy and sustainable social media use is a different experience for everyone—but it should always be woven responsibly into daily life.
"As with every other thing," Dr. Magis-Weinberg said, "We recommend balance."