The world can be divided into two groups of people. There are those whose first thought upon waking up in the morning is Where is my phone?
And then there’s everyone else.
This first group refers to the social media addicts among us. We each have our own vice of choice—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. But what unites us is that we all experience the world through the Internet. A notification popping up on our screen is a sight more beautiful than the night sky’s first star. The buzzing of our phone meeting an electrical charge is a sound sweeter than the ocean at sunrise. The days of witnessing something cool and not posting proof on the Internet feel as distant as the days before man knew fire.
Yes, this sounds over-the-top. But social media dependence is a reality for millions. It certainly is for me. I can’t go on a lunch break without flicking through my Instagram feed. I can’t watch my cats cuddle without sharing it on Snapchat.
This is the reality. But is it healthy? I conducted an experiment to find out. To follow along, keep reading.
The ways in which social media might be screwing with my real life are something I think about (and write about) a lot. What kind of impact does my incessant scroll, scroll, double-tap have on my mood and relationships? Another kind of addiction wouldn’t do them any good.
This question is exactly what a recent study from the University of Michigan set out to answer. Using a technique called “experience sampling,” which evaluates how people think, feel, and act from moment to moment in everyday life, the study assessed the effects of different social media apps on the well-being of 154 different smartphone users.
Long story short: The researchers found that there is no social media platform as rewarding as face-to-face communication. No surprise there. But interestingly, there is one that comes close: Snapchat.
Apparently Snapchatters experience an overall more positive daily mood than users of any other social media. The reason? Sites like Instagram and Facebook have become “a space for sharing crafted big moments,” says the study’s lead author, UM researcher Joseph Bayer. Think graduations, engagements, and gorgeous vacations. By contrast, Snapchat offers “a distinct space for sharing the small moments.” (Read: my cats cuddling.)
In other words, instead of broadcasting major life events that might cause onlookers to feel inadequate, Snapchat—with its unrefined, swiftly disappearing posts—is “used to communicate spontaneously with close friends in a new and often more enjoyable way.”
Sounds healthy enough, right?
Personally, Instagram is my drug of choice. I’ll Snap when I see something funny or when I want to amuse my close friends with an unflattering selfie. And I still post to Facebook, but it’s mostly so my mom and former college profs can see what I’m up to. (Yep, that’s who populates my Facebook now).
But the curated eye candy of Instagram is what really gets me, and I’m definitely guilty of overthinking my filters to fit my color-coordinated theme. I don’t schedule my life around it or anything. But will I spend 15 minutes executing a like-worthy ’gram? It’s been known to happen.
That said, I am sometimes concerned that attempting to perfect my Instagram persona and live up to that of others is ultimately a waste of time and a cause of unnecessary (albeit minor) stress.
So this study got me thinking. If I convert from Instagram to Snapchat, will it make me an overall happier, less self-conscious person?
I decided to put this theory to the test. So I devised a plan: For a week, I’d swear off all social media except Instagram and chart my well-being using the same rubric as the study. Then, I’d do the same with Snapchat. Would switching to Snap boost my mood without having to go completely offline? I was eager to find out.
I began the test with my Snapchat-free week. Not only would it be five days of pure Instagram—I had recently decided to refine the aesthetic of my account, so I was more zeroed in than ever on filters, follows, and likes.
On the first day, I staged a photo shoot in front of a palm tree–lined street to (not so) effortlessly capture my new haircut. On the second day, I had a graphic designer at my office help me professionally light an ironically captioned photo of my favorite headphones. The third day, I nearly pulled a muscle holding up a jar of vegan vitamins at just the right angle in front of a flattering background. The fourth, I posted a heavily edited #tbt from an Oregonian backpacking vacation I took three months prior. The fifth day: a minimalist shot of my empty new apartment the day before moving in.
I filtered and Facetuned each photo so they’d appear crafted yet breezy, then savagely refreshed my feed every five minutes to catch new likes the second they happened.
Spelled out in detail like this, my behavior seems nuts. But I think it’s common among even mildly invested ’grammers. It’s minutes we’re dedicating each day to the app, not hours. But we’re certainly trying to live up to a standard we don’t meet in real life. It’s satisfying to capture an image you’re proud of. But effortless? Hardly.
The original UM study tracked social media users’ experiences by texting them a survey at six random times throughout the day and having them answer according to their emotional state at the time. The survey questions were as follows:
- How negative or positive do you feel right now?
- How did your most recent interaction occur?
- How pleasant or unpleasant was your most recent interaction?
- Within that interaction, how supportive or unsupportive was that person to you?
- How close are you to that person?
I didn’t have a paid researcher to text me, so I just set an alarm on my phone for 2 p.m. every day, and I checked in with myself then. Here’s what I found:
During my Instagram week, my mood ranged on the positivity scale from “in the middle” to “mostly negative.” It didn’t actively feel like I was having a bad week, but according to my records, this was the trend.
Almost all of my responses to the question of how enjoyable my last interaction was read something like “pleasant but stressful.” Interestingly, I also noted that the person with whom I’d most recently interacted was always either “supportive” or “very supportive.” So all in all, my mood was crappy, but at least I felt like people had my back.
With that information, I deleted the Instagram app from my phone. Now, it was time to Snap.
At first, my Snapchat-only week was a touch more challenging than expected. The thought of leaving my Instagram account stagnant for five days made me tense. Would my 467 precious followers think I’d died? Or worse, abandoned them? What important events would I miss? (Admittedly, I did cheat once or twice on the first day and checked my feed from my laptop. I know, shameful.)
After the initial withdrawal subsided, I did my best to embrace my new Snap-centric lifestyle. I casually clicked through videos of famous YouTubers frolicking through airports and photos of celebs flaunting scraggly morning hairdos. I received self-deprecating Snaps of friends preparing chili and blow-drying their dog’s fur, to which I responded with videos of my cats squabbling over a felt parrot and close-ups of me lip syncing to the radio. It was all pretty mundane and low-stakes. But it was fun to see what people were up to in this imperfect light. By the end of the week, I realized that these sort of random, unceremonious interactions had cast a relaxed filter over my daily goings-on.
After all, Facetune and editing apps were out of the picture; likes were no longer in the mix. And though the lack of pressure that comes with Instagram felt a little empty, it was also freeing.
At the end of the week, I analyzed my chart of survey answers. A few patterns: It seemed that all week long, my mood hovered just above average on the positivity scale. The pleasantness of my interactions ranged from “not unpleasant” to “decently pleasant.” However, the level of support I received from the people with whom I interacted was either “supportive-ish” or “not so supportive.” (I believe this last note on supportiveness was taken after delivering a handful of poorly received jokes at the lunch table.)
As it turned out, my Snapchat experience was almost a perfect inverse of my Instagram experience. My general mood was elevated, but I didn’t sense as much support from people IRL.
When I went back and reviewed the results of the original study, I found that mine aligned with them exactly. Though the study’s Snapchatters exhibited a more positive disposition, their interactions were also perceived as having “less social support than other social media.” The UM researchers say that these findings “open up important questions about the benefits and costs of different social media.”
So, comparing the original study’s conclusions with mine, do we have our answer? Does using Snapchat over Instagram put you in a better mood?
One could conclude that my life as an exclusive Snapchat user was technically “happier.” However, when I think back, it didn’t really feel that way. Truthfully, I didn’t feel 100% myself that week, and the whole time, I was secretly excited about getting back on Instagram.
Maybe that’s frivolous, disturbing even. But maybe it also means that for me, the benefits of Instagram outweigh the costs more than they do for Snapchat. Maybe the minor stresses are worth it to me to feel as though I’ve created something I think others will appreciate. Maybe my version of happiness has less to do with my momentary mood and more with my satisfaction on a grander scale.
I probably could have gotten used to a life of selectively Snapchat if I’d committed a little more. And maybe my version of happiness would have shifted. But it would have been a struggle. And what would be the point of swapping a genuine social media dependence for a cultivated one, especially if there are pros and cons to both?
I once heard a wise woman, a writer named Emily Gould, say that if you don’t have an aching, urgent addiction to social media, don’t participate. “No one should be on social media because they think they have to,” she told a podcast late last year. “You should do it because you’re addicted.”
Say what you will about how “healthy” or “unhealthy” different social media platforms are. My heart still belongs to Instagram. And until further notice, I will spend 15 minutes each day scrolling, selecting filters, and waiting for the likes to roll in.
Maybe it’ll make me grumpy from time to time. But at least everyone will have my back.
Are you addicted to social media? How do you think it impacts your well-being? Sound off in the comments below!