The 6-hour outage gave many people a break from social media, which some say had a positive effect on their mental health.

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It was a tough week for Facebook.

On Monday, Oct. 4, the social network went dark for about 6 hours, rendering its 3.5 billion users unable to access its platforms.

The next day, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen appeared before Congress, detailing the emotional harm that its platforms have on young people, particularly on Instagram.

The whistleblower’s testimony pressured lawmakers to update internet regulations that would include improved safety measures to protect Facebook’s users.

According to Facebook, the global outage was caused by a “faulty configuration change.”

During the outage, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp users flooded other social media apps. Snapchat’s users surged by more than 20% with Telegram close behind, followed by Signal, Twitter, and TikTok.

Even Facebook itself posted to Twitter to keep its users updated about the outage.

This frantic platform-hopping was a reflection of our reliance on social media to stay connected, particularly during the pandemic.

“People were genuinely anxious when they realized that this outage was a real problem and likely to last for a number of hours,” said Teodora Pavkovic, MSc, psychologist, parenting coach, and digital wellness expert at Linewize based in Honolulu.

As millions of people scrambled to fill their social media voids, by contrast, some posted on Twitter that the outage signified a much-needed mental health day.

A short break from the social network seems to have sparked a conversation in the digital hive mind about social media dependence and mental health.

According to Haugen’s testimony, internal Facebook research showed that Instagram caused psychological damage to teenage users, contributing to body image issues for 1 in 3 teen girls.

Yet the relationship between mental health and social media is complex and varied, regardless of age.

“People who are already struggling in ‘real life’ can either have a bad experience online in the form of bullying or seeking out harmful content, or they can use the online world to seek help and support,” said Pavkovic. “In other words, social media can make things worse or better.”

Indeed, plenty of research has linked social media use with damaging mental health outcomes.

A 2020 review notes that teens who use social media are more likely to experience depression, with 70% of subjects reporting an increase in depressive symptoms.

Research from 2017 suggests that more time spent on social media may be related to rates of teen depression and teen suicide.

Constantly comparing our lives to others can affect our sense of self-perception, which means the mental health effects of social media could be felt by anyone who uses it.

And a 2019 analysis of a nationally representative sample of 1,730 adults ages 19–32 suggests that symptoms associated with depression and anxiety increased with social media use.

For many people, particularly young people, life without social media may seem unimaginable. Yet it’s possible to develop a healthy relationship with social media and foster meaningful connections with others.

Pavkovic said that taking breaks from any intense or frequent experience, including social media, is crucial for mental well-being.

“Notifications, emotionally charged exchanges, viral videos — there’s a lot going on online, and most of it [is] incredibly stimulating,” she said. “Taking breaks is crucial — whether for hours, days, or longer.”

The key to taking a break from social media, according to Pavkovic, is to approach it in a mindful and intentional way.

For instance, she recommends avoiding the term “digital detox,” since it can conjure feelings of deprivation. Instead, she said it’s helpful to reflect on how you use social media and for what purpose.

Prioritizing digital wellness means assessing the aspects of social media that lift you up versus bring you down, which may offer some clarity on how you interact with it and what might need to change.

Instead of waiting for the next Facebook outage to take a break from your feeds, try incorporating regular breaks into your day, even if it’s just logging out of your accounts temporarily.

Try using that block of downtime to do any of the following:

  • call a friend or loved one
  • go for a device-free walk
  • read a book
  • write in your journal
  • catch up on school or work
  • tackle a project you’ve been putting off

If you think you’ve become too reliant on social media, it may be time for a break.

Keep in mind that just because you’re a frequent scroller doesn’t mean you’re “addicted.” While many people associate social media with addiction, addiction is a separate clinical diagnosis.

Although internet gaming disorder is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) as a mental health condition, internet addiction disorder (IAD) is not, and encompasses far more of the online world than just social media.

“Dependency is my preferred way to describe it,” Pavkovic said. “And we are absolutely living in an age of digital dependence.”