Social media makes people unhappy… but it doesn’t have to.

Scientific American takes a look at our online habits and finds we’re not making ourselves happy. The technology makes us lose track of time, disrupts sleep, lowers our sense of satisfaction, and increases our tendency to get into conflicts, research proves. But, according to this interview with University of Washington computer scientist Amanda Baughan, it also points the way toward simple ways to stop social media from making people unhappy:

For example, we’ve found that social media design can actually help people feel more supportive and kind in moments of online conflict, provided there’s a little bit of a nudge to behave that way. In one study, we designed an intervention that encouraged people who start talking about something contentious in a comment thread to switch to direct messaging. People really liked it. It helped resolve their conflict and replicated a solution we use in-person: people having a public argument move to a private space to work things out.

The “30-Minute Ick Factor” is when people mean to check their social media briefly but then find that 30 minutes have passed, and when they realize how much time they spent, they have this sense of disgust and disappointment in themselves. Research has shown that people are dissatisfied with this habitual social media use. A lot of people frame it as meaningless, unproductive or addictive.

We worked with 43 participants who used a custom mobile app that we created called Chirp to access their Twitter accounts. The app let people interact with Twitter content while also allowing us to ask them questions and test interventions. So when people were using Chirp, after a given number of minutes, we would send them a questionnaire based on a psychological scale for measuring dissociation. We asked how much they agreed with the statement “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I’m doing” on a scale of 1 to 5. We also did interviews with 11 people to learn more. The results showed dissociation occurred in 42 percent of our participants, and they regularly reported losing track of time or feeling “all-consumed.”

You also designed four interventions that modified people’s Twitter experience on Chirp to reduce dissociation. What worked?

The most successful were custom lists and reading history labels. In custom lists, we forced users to categorize the content they followed, such as “sports” or “news” or “friends.” Then, instead of interacting with Twitter’s main feed, they engaged only with content on these lists. This approach was coupled with a reading history intervention in which people received a message when they were caught up on the newest tweets. Rather than continuing to scroll, they were alerted to what they had already seen, and so they focused on just the newest content. Those interventions reduced dissociation, and when we did interviews, people said they felt safer checking their social media accounts when these modifications were present.

In another design, people received timed messages letting them know how long they had been on Chirp and suggesting they leave. They also had the option of viewing a usage page that showed them statistics such as how much time they’d spent on Chirp in the past seven days. These two solutions were effective if people opted to use them.

TikTok has a feature that, every hour, will tell you that you’ve been scrolling for a while and should consider a break. On Twitter, custom lists are a feature that already exists; it’s just not the default option. If more people start using these tools, it could convince these companies to refine them.