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Less Media, More Social: Strategies to improve your digital wellness

There is no question that technology is a fundamental part of everyone’s life.  In fact, data from an April 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center indicate that 93% of Americans report using the internet.  Among 18-to-29-year-olds, 99% indicate they use the internet.  Data from a February 2021 Pew Research Center survey indicate that 85% of US adults (18 and older) own a smartphone and 84% of 18-to-29-year-olds report using some type of social media (including Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and WhatsApp).  

Given the pervasiveness of technology and increased access to social media through smartphones, researchers from a variety of academic fields are studying the impact of social media on our health and well-being.  The research highlights serious concerns about the contribution of social media to higher rates of depression and anxiety and lower rates of self-esteem among young adults and adolescents (Boumosleh & Jaalouk, 2017; Twenge, 2017; Sha, Sariyska, Riedle, Lachmann & Montag, 2018; Abi-Jaoude, Naylor & Pignatiello, 2020; Pera, 2020).

To help you make more informed decisions about your social media use, Health Promotion and Wellness is launching the “Less Media, More Social” campaign.   Click on the sections below to learn more information and find tips about how you can develop a healthier relationship with technology and social media. 

HPW will also be hosting a series of wellness events that are designed to help you unplug and reconnect with each other.  The dates and times of the events will be posted on this site.   

RESEARCH-BASED FACT: Individuals who have their phones set to receive notifications have higher levels of anxiety(1). 

In a recent survey with undergraduate students from University Park, nearly 50 percent said they spend an average of 4 or more hours per day on their computers, mobile devices, or watching TV (not including time for work or schoolwork)(2). There is no doubt that technology has many benefits; however, there are also unintended negative health effects from spending too much time on computers, devices and social media. Some of the negative mental and physical health outcomes include eye strain, lower sleep quality and quantity,  anxiety due to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), addiction, poor body image, isolation, and loss of control(3). 

When you receive a notification from social media on your phone, your brain's reward center is activated and releases dopamine. The physiological response is identical to responses in the body that cause addiction and substance use disorders. Social media platforms were designed by engineers and scientists to be addictive. New psychological terms, such as Internet Use Disorder (IUD), internet Communication Disorder (ICD) and Smartphone Use Disorder (SUD), have been developed to help us understand how technology and social media applications influence behaviors. It is important to know that social media applications alone do not cause addictive behaviors. The features that are programmed into the platforms and applications (likes, notifications, swipes) are what cause individuals to become dependent on the apps(4). 

TIP: Turn off your notifications in the settings section of your phone for all non-essential items. 

1. Aranda, International Women's Day 2019; Coyne, 2021

2. ACHA-NCHA Penn State Health Assessment Spring 2020 

3. Aranda, Julie, Digital Wellbeing: Understanding your tech usage – Tech talk (IWD2019) [Video]. YouTube. 

4. Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. Penguin Press, New York. 

RESEARCH-BASED FACT: Individuals who use social media for even 1 hour per day report lower levels of self-esteem(5).  

Research suggests that users with higher activity rates on social media most often experience lower self-esteem due to social comparisons(6). Overall, individuals who have higher levels of satisfaction with their lives and a greater sense of connectedness to others spend less time on social media(7). A recent study by Hunt, Marx and Young (2018) found that individuals who limited social media use to 30 minutes per day had better mental health outcomes than individuals who did not decrease their social media time(8). 

TIP: Use an app or set a timer to limit your social media time to 30 minutes per day.

5. Vogel, Rose, Roberts & Eckles, 2014; Twenge, 2019

6. Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222.

7. Tian, Y., Zhang, S., Wu, R., Wang, P., Gao, F., & Chen, Y. (2018). Association Between Specific Internet Activities and Life Satisfaction: The Mediating Effects of Loneliness and Depression. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1181. 

8. Hunt M, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J (2018) No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37 (10)  


RESEARCH-BASED FACT: Individuals who spend time outside have higher levels of emotional well-being(9). 

On a recent survey with undergraduate students at University Park, 46.8 percent scored in the positive range for loneliness on the UCLA Loneliness Scale(10).  Did you know that spending time outdoors is associated with higher levels of emotional well-being, whereas greater loneliness and greater daily screen-time are associated with lower levels of well-being(11)? There are many locations on campus where you can unplug and reconnect with the great outdoors, including the Alumni Gardens, the Arboretum, and Hartley Wood (behind the Arboretum).

Research supports the idea that nature provides a calmness that can increase well-being and decrease anxiety(12). Experiences in nature can slow your brain's natural tendency to ruminate (referred to as the brain's default mode) which occurs when you repeatedly think and worry about past or future events.  Being in nature and focusing on your surroundings and your breathing can help you slow down and disrupt the default mode of your brain. Even the smallest experience with nature – owning a house plant – can generate health benefits(13). 

TIP: Spend at least 30 minutes outdoors every day without using your phone.

9. Stieger, Lewetz & Swami, 2020; Harvard Health 2021; Edwards 2019

10. ACHA-NCHA Penn State Health Assessment Spring 2020 

11. Stieger S, Lewetz D, Swami L (2020) Emotional Well-Being Under Conditions of Lockdown: An experience Sampling Study in Austria During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Happiness Studies 

12. Richardson M, Cormack A, McRobert L, Underhill R (2016) 30 Days Wild: Development and Evaluation of a Large-Scale Nature Engagement Campaign to Improve Well-Being. PLOS ONE 11(2): e0149777. 

13. Lee, M. S., Lee, J., Park, B. J., & Miyazaki, Y. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of physiological anthropology34(1), 21.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique that can help you become more aware of how you use technology (and social media) and the impact it has on your life. Mindfulness simply means being aware of your actions and feelings in the present without judgement (Jon Kabat-Zinn). For example, many of us mindlessly scroll through Instagram or email while waiting in line at the store. Practicing mindfulness can help you become aware of situations like this when you use your phone. It can also help you start to identify how you feel when scrolling through your friend’s Instagram feed.  Do your friend’s photos make you feel jealous, insecure?  If so, why? 

Becoming more aware of your technology use can help you control how you use it, instead of being controlled by it.  Can technology help you develop a sense of autonomy, genuine connectedness to others, and competence (13)?

You can start to build your mindfulness practice by visiting the Healthy Penn State WebsiteHPW also offers several opportunities to learn about mindfulness:

13. Marsden, P. (2020) Three tips for a healthy digital life during the coronavirus outbreak.