Digital detoxing doesn’t necessarily improve personal well-being, new study finds
9 February 2021
Research by Oxford University, carried out in partnership with Reading University, Durham University and The Education University of Hong Kong has found no evidence to suggest abstaining from social media has a positive effect on an individuals’ wellbeing, contrary to popular opinion about the benefits of ‘digital detoxing’.
Based on data from field experiments carried out amongst undergraduate volunteers in the UK, US and Hong Kong, the study finds abstinence from social media has no measurable positive effect on well-being, with study participants reporting similar well-being on the days they used social media and the days then did not.
The study tested five hypotheses concerning the effects of social media abstinence, to see whether abstaining from social media has a significant impact on the way people feel. Contrary to their expectations, the researchers found that avoiding social media for one day did not result in participants expressing improved personal well-being, such as higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions, higher levels of self-esteem or higher levels of satisfaction.
Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute and lead author of the study said:
“To date, studies that test the effects of taking a hiatus from online communication have shown mixed effects. In our study, we sought to address this by testing the psychological effects of taking a break from social media and whether time spent ‘digital detoxing’ would be used for other, some might say, more rewarding activities. Contrary to our expectations, the data shows that abstaining from social media doesn’t automatically improve peoples’ wellbeing nor lead to time spent engaged in more fulfilling social pursuits’.
Researchers also explored whether individuals abstaining from social media would use more varied forms of personal communication to replace social media. The study found that participants reported significantly lower levels of face-to-face, voice and email interactions on the days they abstained and time previously spent on social media wasn’t replaced with other forms of socialising as researchers had initially expected.
Przybylski noted, “we recognise that there is still much more work we need to do in this area to understand the full implications of social media abstinence.” Co-author Professor Netta Weinstein from Reading University adds: “Personal motivation is likely to play a large role in the decision to try social media abstinence and research focused on personal autonomy – choosing whether or not to detox – should be conducted. “In the future, we need more experimental studies carried out with cooperation from social media platforms to tease apart how specific social affordances and unique patterns of engagement shape user motions and psychological well-being.”
The full study, ‘Does taking a short break from Social Media Have a Positive Effect on Well-Being?’ by Professor Andrew Przybylski, Thuy-vy Nguyen, Wilbert Law and Associate Professor Netta Weinstein is published open access in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science.
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Notes to Editors
About the research
Ethical Review was conducted at the University of Rochester, Cardiff University, and The Education University of Hong Kong. AKP was supported by grants from the Huo Family Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/ T008709/1) and data collection by WL was supported by an internal grant provided by The Education University of Hong Kong (04290). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript and the authors declare no conflicts of interest.
About the Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.