An interesting new experimental study from the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated the first causal connection between social media use and feelings of depression and loneliness. The research claims that decreasing one's social media use can lead to significant improvements in personal well-being.

The experiment tracked 143 participants for four weeks. At the beginning of the study all subjects completed a subjective well-being survey that incorporated seven different validated scales designed to measure a variety of well-being constructs, from depression and loneliness, to the more modern "Fear of Missing Out Scale."

For the first week participants were directed to use social media as they would normally. For the subsequent three weeks the subjects were divided into a control group, which remained at regular social media usage levels, and an experimental group, directed to limit usage of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to 10 minutes per platform per day. Every subject uploaded battery screenshots every night so true app usage could be tracked, and well-being surveys were completed at the end of each week.

"We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid," explains Melissa Hunt, one of the researchers on the project. "Here's the bottom line. Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study."

While the results did clearly show general improvements in the subjective well-being scores for those subjects that reduced their social media use, the study does have several limitations. Only three social media platforms were monitored and restricted, so all subjects still could spend as much time as they wanted on Twitter, Messenger and dating sites. The study also relied on self-compliance in terms of asking all subjects to not use those restricted social media platforms on other devices, such as their personal computers.

One of the interesting counter-intuitive findings in the study is that subjects in the experimental group reported reduced sensations of loneliness after limiting their social media use, compared to the control group.

"It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely," says Hunt. "Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there's an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people's lives, particularly on Instagram, it's easy to conclude that everyone else's life is cooler or better than yours."

No optimal social media usage time was determined by the study, although the overall conclusion does suggest reducing usage to a maximum of 30 minutes per day may be beneficial. The average daily social media use tracked during the first baseline week in the study suggested most subjects used these platforms for between 60 and 75 minutes per day.

The researchers do note that further study is needed to home in on this particular detail as it is hypothesized that there may be an optimal level of use that could be determined, as it's not unreasonable to assume that zero use could result in negative effects on a person's well-being, particularly in young people.

The study was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.