The present day and age is described as the ‘smartphone era’, with smartphones ubiquitously integrated into our everyday lives [1
]. These digital devices are now used in place of desktop computers to perform everyday tasks, such as sending and receiving emails [3
], providing permanent accessibility to any application and opportunity to communicate at our fingertips [4
]. Smartphones also provide access to health applications to encourage users to participate in various health and wellbeing programmes [5
]. However, recent statistics report that the most used smartphone applications are social media (SM) [6
], and their use has dramatically increased over the last decade [7
]. Social media is defined as the “interactive web and mobile platforms through which individuals and communities share, co-create, or exchange information, ideas, photos, or videos within a virtual network” [8
] (p. 2). Research highlights a difference between SM and messaging-only applications, such as WhatsApp, which function as text messaging tools and thus constitute a separate domain from SM [7
Described as the ‘extension of man’ [11
], SM has become almost inescapable, and it has now become the norm for individuals to own accounts on multiple SM platforms [12
]. Although constant access to these platforms has made communication more efficient, health-related concerns of social media use (SMU) are at the forefront of research on technology use due to the wide availability and use of smartphone SM applications and constant receipt of regular notifications and updates [13
Defined as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” [15
] (p. 1), fear of missing out (FoMO) is classified by the desire to be constantly connected with what other people are doing. FoMO is a strong motivator for SMU [16
], and may impact wellbeing. The concept of wellbeing, how people feel and function [17
], is of interest to researchers in the domain of technology use [18
]. Positive mental wellbeing (MWB) is the state in which “the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” [19
] (p. 49). Furthermore, one’s sense of social connectedness (SC) is highly valued because of the importance of authentic connections [20
]. SC is described as an individual’s emotional connectedness with themselves, others, and society, with the need to maintain a sense of belongingness and positive social relationships [21
]. The continued search for causal drivers of FoMO, MWB, and SC seems paramount since they impact an health, life satisfaction, and wider society [23
Most previous research has focused on the associations between SMU and perceived FoMO, MWB, and SC, rather than cause and effect [25
]. Although some researchers claim individuals who score higher in perceived FoMO are driven to use SM, these studies are usually characterised by samples with high anxiety who depend on SM to compensate for lack of offline relationships and to maintain a sense of belongingness [12
Przybylski et al. [15
] and Oberst et al. [27
] indicate that SMU and FoMO have a reciprocal relationship, where perceived FoMO drives SMU to fulfil psychological needs of belongingness, reinforcing SMU. This is supported by self-determination and uses and gratifications theory, where reinforcements and rewards, in the form of SM notifications and validation through ‘likes’, explain the continual and habitual nature of SMU [28
]. In a culture constantly attached to smartphones, these SM rewards and reinforcements are limitless in both access and receipt, and users are constantly subject to new information and updates. Researchers state that SMU exacerbates an individual’s perceived FoMO [4
], suggesting stronger evidence for a cause and effect relationship whereby SMU increases FoMO. Moreover, the perceived obligation to maintain connections and stay updated on SM has been described as “technostress”, and can negatively affect one’s wellbeing [30
Hunt et al. [32
] found causal evidence that limiting SMU to ten minutes per platform per day for three weeks significantly decreased loneliness and depressive symptoms, FoMo and anxiety. However, their experiment included a control group where some subjects abstained and others did not, making it difficult to compare use and abstinence in the same individual. Primack et al. [33
] found that participants with higher SMU felt more socially isolated than participants with lower SMU, demonstrating a positive relationship between SM engagement and feelings of isolation. Further, research shows that face-to-face interactions act as a buffer to prevent negative MWB in comparison to online interactions [34
], suggesting that offline relationships promote a more positive sense of wellbeing than online. However, Grieve et al. [35
] argue that the benefits of face-to-face SC can translate online, with Facebook SC positively relating to perceived MWB, although this research makes no comparisons between SMU and SM non-use; thus, a clear causal relationship cannot be determined [36
]. Longitudinal research comparing SM use with SM non-use found that SM users are more likely to report higher levels of loneliness than SM non-users, thereby negatively affecting perceived MWB and SC [37
SMU is appealing due to the sense of being connected that it provides [30
]. Scholars question whether this sense of socialisation is an illusion, with face-to-face interactions creating more meaning and providing authenticity compared with online interactions. A study exploring why regular Twitter users take breaks from the site found that most individuals’ motivations for abstinence periods are due to concerns over the disconnect between online and offline [38
], demonstrating that individuals perceive offline interactions as more important than online interactions.
With SMU now entwined with our daily routines via smartphones [1
], SM abstinence allows exploring the tangible effects of SM on people’s lives [39
] as little is known about SM abstinence and the potential challenges associated with it [38
]. SM abstinence may increase participants’ MWB and SC, and decrease FoMO, where higher SM users who abstain will notice these changes more than lower SM users.
There have been very few studies on SM abstinence and fewer employing an experimental design to determine cause and effect [24
]. Roberts and Koliska’s [39
] study investigated students going media-free for 24 h and found distress was the most common experience, including high FoMO and feeling isolated. These negative responses may be due to abstaining from all media including messaging, considered an essential communication tool vital for many young people’s sense of safety [9
]. Furthermore, heightened distress and feelings of isolation may be a result of the exceptionally short abstinence period. Consistent with addiction and dependency literature, anxiety and distress are usually heightened at the beginning of abstinence where initial withdrawal is common with reduced reinforcements, but it often decreases over time with adaption when individuals learn to satisfy their psychological needs elsewhere [12
]. Research also revealed that some participants failed to fully abstain due to inadvertent use, demonstrating the habitual nature of media use, warranting further exploration.
A seven-day Facebook abstinence study revealed a significant reduction in perceived stress following abstinence in comparison with a non-abstaining control group, where reduced stress was greater in more excessive SM users [42
] because the positive effects of abstinence were due to the seven-day period being long enough for positive adaption to the change, and short enough to be feasible for participants to maintain abstinence [43
]. Consistent with a study exploring 99 days of Facebook abstinence, participants found their compulsion to check the site was stronger in the initial stages of abstinence and this reduced over time for those who fully complied [44
]. Another seven-day Facebook abstinence study provided causal evidence that a Facebook abstinence period increased life satisfaction and elicited more positive emotions in comparison to a control group of participants who continued using the site, and positive effects in the abstinence group were significantly greater for more excessive users [24
Research on SM abstinence is scarce and the aforementioned studies focused on Facebook use rather than multiple SM platforms [45
] and used self-reports to measure SMU [25
]. As multiple SM platforms are now primarily accessed through portable smartphones [12
] and SMU self-report measures tend to be subjective and biased [46
], multiple SM platform use needs to be studied with more objective measures over time. The aforementioned studies on SM abstinence employed a between-subjects experimental design, but a within-subjects experimental design is more beneficial in reducing errors associated with individual differences [25
]. Furthermore, as little is known about regular SM users taking on abstinence periods and the associated challenges, a mixed-methods approach may provide insight into individual abstinence experiences and theoretical implications [38
This research aims to bridge the gap in SM abstinence research by using a novel combination of mixed methods, employing a within-subjects experiment to compare behavioural effects of a seven-day SM abstinence period across multiple SM platforms, measuring SMU with smartphone applications objectively. The following hypotheses were formulated:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Participants’ baseline SMU will be significantly positively correlated with changes in FoMO, MWB, and SC.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
There will be a significant decrease in participants’ perceived FoMO.
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
There will be a significant increase in participants’ perceived MWB.
Hypothesis 4 (H4).
There will be a significant increase in participants’ perceived SC.
Hypothesis 5 (H5).
There will be a significant decrease in participants’ mean hours per day spent on their smartphone.
Moreover, the qualitative part of this study aims to uncover challenges and experiences of a seven-day abstinence period from SMU.
This study sought to compare participants’ perceived FoMO, MWB, and SC, and smartphone use after seven days of normal SMU (before abstinence) and after seven days of SM abstinence (after abstinence). Results revealed no significant relationship between baseline SMU and FoMO, MWB, and SC change scores. However, a significant positive relationship was found between MWB change scores and SC change scores, and a significant negative relationship was found between FoMO change scores and SC change scores. A significant decrease in FoMO and a significant increase in MWB and SC were revealed after SM abstinence. The results showed that participants’ mean hours per day spent on their smartphone significantly decreased during SM abstinence. Furthermore, thematic analysis results provided insight into the motivations for SMU being coping, habit, and boredom, posing anticipated challenges for participants in the absence of SM. Retrospective experiences of SM abstinence revealed that SM notifications posed a challenge in abstaining due to their distracting nature, causing participants to absent-mindedly access SM as a habitual response. Moreover, it was discovered that to relieve boredom, some participants engaged in substitution behaviours through accessing non-SM applications. Finally, thematic analysis revealed mixed views on perceived connectivity in the absence of SM, with some participants feeling less connected to online peers, and others finding themselves more interested in offline connections during abstinence. Additional analyses revealed no significant differences between different levels of SMU and no significant differences between males and females in FoMO, MWB, and SC change scores.
As a medium-sized effect [67
], decreased FoMO following SM abstinence is strongly supported by previous research, suggesting that SMU exacerbates FoMO, specifically with the receipt of SM notifications [4
]. This is also supported by thematic analysis findings, where participants indicated that the receipt of notifications was distracting, causing them to habitually access SM, and the very receipt of these updates triggered FoMO. Participants in this study also described their habitual SM scrolling as motivation to strive for constant stimulation. In his recent work, Griffiths [69
] confirms that as intermittent and unlimited rewards, receiving SM notifications can lead to habitual SMU to avoid missing out on the potential for a psychologically stimulating reward. These results demonstrate the reciprocal process of SMU and FoMO [15
] and can be broken with a period of SM abstinence and disabling notifications. This confirms that SMU drives FoMO more so than FoMO drives SMU [26
], but more specifically, SM notification rewards drive FoMO. The saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ may explain why abstinence reduced FoMO, aided by turning off or muting notifications which assisted in relieving the challenge of abstaining, where reduced cognitive load may have allowed participants to focus on other activities [70
]. These findings support literature on the distracting nature of notifications and the negative effects on task performance [71
]. Furthermore, the positive experience of removing notifications appears to have had a lasting impact on participants, where many stated they may continue to keep their SM notifications muted, indicating this led to a tangible positive change in their wellbeing.
Increased MWB after abstinence compared with use had a medium-sized effect [67
], supported by previous literature suggesting that face-to-face interactions benefit MWB over online interactions [33
] and further supporting research demonstrating associations between SMU and lower MWB [25
]. Research linking SMU to increased social comparisons may explain increased MWB following an abstinence period, where participants are less exposed to information about others’ lives which negatively affect self-contagion [25
]. Although offline social comparisons in the offline environment are inevitable as a natural tendency [72
], Walther et al.’s [73
] model of computer-mediated communication supports components of SM contribute to a sense of identity, serving components such as self-representation. This suggests that SM environments are more likely to elicit negative comparisons than offline environments. Furthermore, thematic analysis findings suggested that SM was used passively and characterised by habitual scrolling, increasing exposure to content where negative social comparisons can be made [25
]. Thematic analysis revealed participants used SM to cope, escaping from stressful real-life situations. In the absence of SM during their abstinence period, participants may have been provided with a healthy avenue to process their offline experiences rather than using SM as an easy escape [74
Although a small-sized effect [67
], there was a significant increase in SC as a result of SM abstinence, in line with prior research suggesting that individuals feel more socially connected in the absence of SM [38
]. Thematic analysis findings may contribute to building a theory behind why the effect was only small sized as it revealed mixed feelings regarding perceived connectivity, where some participants felt more socially connected offline, while others expressed concerns over the loss of online SC to peers during abstinence, demonstrating individual differences in perceived SC. Perhaps those who experienced lower SC without SM used these platforms to overcompensate for perceived lack of offline connectedness, which may explain the mixed feelings in perceived connectivity as a result of abstinence [75
]. Although individuals find the connectivity aspect of SM appealing [30
], prior research suggests that people perceive offline connections as more important than online connections [38
]. Moreover, the large-sized [66
] positive relationship between SC and MWB change scores is supported by literature indicating the strong relationship between wellbeing and a sense of connectedness [77
]. The medium-sized [66
] negative relationship between SC and FoMO change scores suggests that participants’ increase in SC was related to their decrease in FoMO following abstinence. Likewise, participants’ decrease in SC was related to their increase in FoMO. This may contribute to the explanation of mixed feelings on perceived connectivity after abstinence, where FoMO could be linked with the online world for some participants, and the offline world for others. The area of perceived connectedness in relation to SMU and SM abstinence warrants further research.
Non-significant differences in participants’ levels of SMU before abstinence and across genders in MWB, FoMO, and SC change scores suggest that significant improvements in MWB and FoMO occurred regardless of whether participants were considered as ‘higher-level’ or ‘lower-level’ SM users and regardless of whether they were male or female. This may be surprising as differences across genders in both substance and behavioural addictive patterns are known [78
], with females more likely to develop addictive SM behaviours for social interaction purposes and males more likely to develop compulsive use of more asocial and solitary activities [79
]. This suggests that reasons behind overall improved wellbeing in this study following abstinence may have differed between genders due to the differences in genders in motivations for SMU. Moreover, the results present implications that periods of SM abstinence are beneficial regardless of whether individuals use these platforms in moderation or more frequently. Furthermore, correlational results showed no relationship between baseline SMU before abstinence and changes in FoMO, MWB, and SC. This is contrary to previous literature indicating that individuals who use SM more will experience greater positive outcomes than lower users of SM [24
Following abstinence, there was a significant decrease in participants’ mean hours per day spent on their smartphones, as predicted, supporting prior research on the prevalent use of smartphone devices to access SM [3
], where SM abstinence may have instigated less frequent smartphone use, suggesting the influence of smartphone use on desire for constant connectivity [83
]. However, this effect was small sized [68
]. Substitution behaviours revealed in thematic analysis may provide an explanation, where during abstinence, participants found they substituted their need to fill time with scrolling on other non-SM smartphone applications. Chambers [84
] makes the distinction between content gratification and process gratification, where process gratification has less to do with SM content, but the process of accessing SM for entertainment or escapism, suggesting that habitual behaviours derive not from SM content, but the process of scrolling with the finger to occupy the mind [44
]. Although participants substituted behaviours, FoMO, MWB, and SC changes were significant, suggesting that habitual SM scrolling behaviours may have a more negative impact on wellbeing than scrolling on non-SM applications, supported in Wilcoxon et al.’s [85
] study of smartphone abstinence where participants’ mood and anxiety remained unchanged. This suggests that negative outcomes of SMU may be related to negative exposure to SM content [25
]. However, Turgeman et al. [86
] found that social anxiety and excessive smartphone use were positively correlated, explaining some participants’ needs to substitute SM with other smartphone applications. Furthermore, the positive changes in FoMO, MWB, and SC may have been moderated by the decrease in smartphone use during SM abstinence, warranting further research.
However, these positive changes may be explained by social cognitive theory of mass communication, suggesting that people’s views of SM are influenced by news reports, which mostly contain negativity surrounding SM [87
]. Further, the ‘digital cleanse’ is becoming a more popular phenomenon particularly amongst celebrities taking abstinence breaks from technology [20
] and self-optimisation theorises that participants may have felt morally better in successfully abstaining. Nonetheless, thematic analysis revealed that the voluntary sample still found abstaining challenging, regardless of underlying motivations for taking part in the experiment, demonstrating strong evidence that SM abstinence can induce positive changes in psychosocial behaviours compared with SMU. Furthermore, positive significant changes in FoMO, MWB, and SC were not related to initial degree of SMU, adding more weight to the results.
In a smartphone SM pervasive society [1
], this study has important implications for demonstrating the importance of unplugging from SM at times, supporting the benefit and feasibility of an abstinence period of seven days [43
]. With little known about social media abstinence [38
], the present mixed-methods research draws compelling comparisons between the effects of SMU and SM abstinence on psychosocial behaviours. Moreover, using digital applications to measure multiple platform SMU increased the accuracy of results and the thematic analysis offered theoretical explanations for behavioural changes elicited by the abstinence period. The present results have wider implications for individuals and society in supporting the benefits of a short SM abstinence period as an intervention to manage the potential negative effects of SM and improve wellbeing [25
]. The results also offer useful suggestions for parents in managing their children’s screen time, further contributing to educational and health research [88
Some limitations are worth noting. First, the participants’ age range between 20 and 49 years suggests that both students and individuals in employment have been included, and this may have an important influence on both SMU and coping with abstinence where younger age groups are more likely to use SM more frequently and for social interaction purposes as well as self-disclosure, and acquire a larger network than older age groups. However, the sample mostly consisted of a younger population (M
age = 24.44); an abstinence period for an older age group may yield different results due to the different uses of SM across generations [82
]. Second, the findings present a further question of whether the significant reduction in smartphone use during abstinence moderated the positive changes in FoMO and MWB. Finally, the thematic analysis findings of participants’ mixed feelings on perceived connectivity during abstinence coupled with an increase in SC after abstinence warrants further exploration as to whether there were other differences between those who felt more socially connected after abstinence and those who felt less connected. Future research should focus on investigating motivations for SMU across generations and genders, and explore individual differences in perceived online social connectivity and offline social connectivity. The extent to which reduction in smartphone use during SM abstinence moderates positive changes in wellbeing needs exploring, and psychosocial behavioural effects should be measured across a longer abstinence period, which may be useful in determining whether results are lasting or are due to initial positivity derived from self-optimisation.