App-rehensive: CBC social media experiment uncovers anxiety, discontent in users

New research says social medial use increases anxiety and depression. CBC conducted its own experiment and asked two users to give up scrolling their feeds for seven days. The results were surprising.

Giving up constant visits to social media sites for a week harder than they imagined

Collins Maritim, 22, and Sophie Theodorou, 21, volunteered to give up social media apps for a week for the CBC. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

Two heavy social media users say giving up scrolling their feeds for a week showed them they were struggling with symptoms of addiction— something both say they would have denied before the CBC experiment.

Collins Maritim, 22, and Sophie Theodorou, 21, agreed to quit all social media for a week to see how it affected their moods. No Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat — the apps were removed from their phones.

Maritim says before being contacted by CBC, he tried to stop on his own. He would delete apps only to reinstall them a few hours later. He says it was a battle he couldn't win.

"This was constant," he said. "I couldn't do a day without being away from the social media apps. If you asked me before this experiment, I would say no, I wasn't addicted. I can honestly say yes now. Looking at how much time and thought I put into it, I am, yes, for sure."

For Theodorou, who describes herself as an introvert, any spare time was used to check feeds. Removing the apps for the experiment, she says, showed her how dependant she was on them. Withdrawal for her was real.

"When I would go on my phone and scroll to where the app was and trying to press on it, it was not there," she said. "My phone had that muscle memory in it. It was kind of crazy. And that's when I thought whoa, this is weird," she said.

How will people know I am having fun if I don't post it on social media?- Collins Maritim

Maritim and Theodorou were interviewed by CBC Radio three times.

The first part involved the students talking about how they use social media currently, which apps they use and how often. The second part involved the students stopping all social media use for one week and writing a journal about their feelings every day. In the third installment, both talked about their experience overall and how being off social media affected their personal well being and their mood. It also focused on whether they would be making any changes going forward. 

First day the hardest

Maritim says he spent about five hours a day on Instagram and Facebook, sites he would always check while still in bed after waking up. He figures 80 per cent of his time was interacting, the remainder scrolling. The biggest struggle for him was in the morning and being out with friends later in the day.

"I was always the guy taking videos and sending it to people and posting," he said. "Then I couldn't do it. It was really really rough. How will people know I am having fun if I don't post it on social media?" said the University of Manitoba finance student.

He says there is an unspoken competition to see who had had the most enjoyable weekend and posting it. 

Theodorou was the flipside to Maritim.

She says 80 per cent of her time was spent scrolling, the rest interacting. While Maritim's worst time was in the morning, hers was at night.

"The weekend was the worst when I was out with friends" she said. "If I wasn't working for eight to 10 hours, it would have been even more difficult. It was really hard not to go for the phone and Snapchat when I was out."

Impact on mental health

Maritim wrote about feelings of discontent. He realized he would go on social media for what he calls a hit of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is associated with positive feelings. But sometimes it would backfire.

"I discovered when I had a bad day, I would go on social media hoping to get a positive hit from something on Instagram or Snapchat. Sometimes it would work, but then there were days when I saw everyone else seemed to be having a better day, and I would feel down," he recalled It wasn't good for my mental health. It was scary because it turned into a coping strategy."

"Everyone wants to say my life is better than yours, I am having more fun than you. And that's where the mental-health aspect comes in," he said," because a lot of time is spent painting a false reality."

Theodorou says she constantly compared herself with others she saw on social media, setting an unrealistic standard that would lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. 

Feelings of discontent and inadequacy are not surprising, says Winnipeg psychologist Dr. Jo Ann Unger.

"What we are comparing is our personal, private, internal experience with someone's highly filtered external very well chosen photographs and posts," said Unger, president of the Manitoba Psychological Society. 

"So that comparison is never going to line up because we don't know the other person's internal experience — all the bad things that have happened in their life because they are only posting the good stuff.

"But we are comparing it to our everything  so it is always going to fall short and that's why it hits our self-esteem and we feel discontent with our life." 

Unger says there are concrete reasons why it is so hard to withdraw from social media, particularly something called intermittent positive reinforcement. 

Instead of being on my phone and trying to document how awesome my vacation is, I want to completely shut it off and enjoy it.- Sophie Theodorou

"This is the most powerful reinforcement of behaviour that we have discovered in psychology," she said.

"What it is, when we get positive feedback every once in a while, we can't predict it, we don't know when it is going to happen. That encourages the behaviour to increase.

"So for social media, when you open it up and get a 'like,' or a new friend or a message, what happens is we get a little shot of happy hormones — dopamine as it is referred to. So we get this little shot of happiness juice and we go Yeah! I get that feedback but we don't know when it is going to come again or when it is going to happen, so we have to keep checking." 

Both Maritim and Theodorou made changes in their daily routines.

Maritim meditated before getting out of bed in the morning, and made a conscious effort to spend more time face to face with family and friends. 

Theodorou would meditate at night, and leave her phone in her purse when visiting friends. 

Both had to battle what Unger calls the intolerance of boredom.

Boredom, she says, isn't a pleasant feeling, and if we haven't had a lot of experience with this feeling it turns into anxiety, and because it is unpleasant we don't know how to cope. It's an avoidance strategy." 

Winning the battle

Seven days later both participants say they have noticed a change in their mental health and personal well being.

Theodorou was more positive and hopeful.

I feel so much better — much more present, much more mindful.- Collins Maritim

"Just being more present and more mindful and not making that constant comparison to everyone else's lives," she said. "Going forward I will definitely be taking breaks, especially going on vacations and stuff like that. Instead of being on my phone and trying to document how awesome my vacation is, I want to completely shut it off and enjoy it."

Theodorou says focusing on things that don't pertain to social media and making more of an effort to talk in person with people was a game-changer that forced her out of her shell. She feels she is enjoying life more in the past week because she hasn't been comparing herself with anyone else. 

For Maritim, it has been an awakening.

"I feel so much better — much more present, much more mindful," he said. "I am able to focus on the moment. My niece and nephew were over and instead of me just sitting back on the couch on Instagram, I was like WOW! I enjoy spending time with my family and the people around me. It is a big difference."

New-found confidence

Maritim beating his addiction for a week has given him a new found confidence. But both admit they couldn't have done it without some form of external accountability. Both agree it isn't realistic to delete all the apps, but both say they are committed to taking more breaks.

And while at first some of their friends were laughing and teasing them, othres have said it's something they might try. 

"Will they do it?" Theodorou asks. "Probably not if they don't have external accountability."

But both say they will continue to challenge their friends. And who knows, Maritim adds, it may start a whole new movement. 

Two heavy social media users say giving up scrolling their feeds for a week showed them they were struggling with symptoms of addiction. 3:00

About the Author

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.