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What happens when we take a break from social media

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Researchers from Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems (KL Krems) and the University of Vienna have identified addiction-like behaviour after time away from social media.

In many cases, just a seven-day break from platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp is sufficient to induce withdrawal symptoms like those caused by addictive substances. In fact, FOMO – or fear of missing out – could be real as symptoms included boredom and a sense of peer pressure to go back onto social media.

The study identified classic withdrawal symptoms, including significantly increased urges, boredom, and an influence on whether the subjects were in a good or bad mood. Most surprisingly, 90 of the 152 participants were unable to do without social media for seven days without ‘relapsing’.

ALSO READ: How HR teams can avoid a social media crisis

The findings were published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

How the study played out

“As it turned out, a seven-day abstinence from social media triggered mild withdrawal symptoms among the subjects, similar to those associated with addictive substances,” explained the author of the study, Prof. Stefan Stieger of the Department of Psychology and Psychodynamics at KL Krems.

Other symptoms included boredom and a sense of significantly stronger peer pressure to go back onto social media. The latter was attributable to a feeling that people expect to interact with their friends on social media, or a belief that they could be missing out on something.

“This feeling of peer pressure is all the more astonishing because the subjects were allowed to use other communication channels such as short text messages (SMS) and e-mail,” Prof. Stieger pointed out.

A total of 152 people aged between 18 and 80 took part in the study, 70% of them women.

Unexpected results

The study revealed that not only was the feeling of being in a positive mood reduced among some subjects – as was expected – but the same also applied to negative sensations. This was both unexpected and surprising, as it does not tally with typical withdrawal symptoms, where a stronger feeling of negative moods would be expected.

Equally surprising was the number of participants who relapsed and ended up using social media during the seven-day abstinence period. Although this only occurred rarely (less than twice on average) and for a short time (an average of three minutes), almost 60% of the subjects “cheated”.

In Prof. Stieger’s view, this is a sign of how deeply embedded social media are in day-to-day life, and consequently how difficult it is to stick to a commitment to do without social media, even among those who are prepared to do so.

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