Whether checking the news or escaping problems, the reasons we use X (Twitter) impact our wellbeing

Victória Oldemburgo de Mello
Victória Oldemburgo de Mello has authored a study finding X (formerly Twitter) is associated with lowered wellbeing (Photo by Alexa Battler).

Alexa Battler

Researchers just found what many have long suspected — using X (formerly known as Twitter) is bad for our wellbeing, but the platform isn’t entirely to blame. 

Going on X is associated with an immediate drop in positive emotions such as joy, and a surge in outrage, political polarization, boredom and a sense of belonging, according to a new study from U of T Scarborough. It also seems that the reason a person opens X, be it to check the news or escape their problems, plays a major role in whether they’ll tweet, retweet, like, scroll and otherwise use its features — actions that are themselves tied to specific emotional impacts.

“We couldn't find any positive effects on wellbeing. Even when some of the things people did made them feel like they belonged more, that didn’t translate into increased positive emotions,” says Victória Oldemburgo de Mello (MA 2021), who led the study, published in the journal Communications Psychology.

Researchers tracked the emotions of 252 American users, both throughout their time on X and in general, to tease apart when the site was impacting their day or their life. Participants ran the gamut demographically, yet results persisted regardless of age, political allegiance, ethnicity and any other aspects of their identities. 

Those who flocked to the site as a means of escapism had lower wellbeing both after using X and overall, and were angrier and unhappier people. Frequent X users were on average more bored and lonelier, and they felt even more bored right after using X, but not any lonelier.

“I can relate to those findings in the sense that I tend to open social media if I’m momentarily frustrated” says Oldemburgo de Mello, a PhD student at U of T Scarborough. “When I'm approaching it with this escapism mindset it's going to be worse overall, because I already have a problem.”

People who were more politically polarized tended to retweet a lot, and the study calls it “puzzling” that users felt increasingly polarized when they used X for entertainment — a motivation closely tied with scrolling the feed. Users often closed X with a spike in their anger levels, and became angrier when they used X to find information, though this wasn’t tied to any specific action.

When people went on X seeking social interaction, they tended to reply to tweets and visit profiles, and felt a boost in their sense of belonging. Interestingly, researchers found the same motive and increase when people checked the trending topics.

We couldn't find any positive effects on wellbeing.

Extensive research has quantified how much interacting with another person boosts wellbeing — that is, positive emotions such as joy. To think of it as a points system, if a person’s wellness gets 15 points per human interaction, using X causes it to lose 10 points. 

“Imagine the magnitude of how you feel when you meet someone and you talk to them for a while, you get a little bit of a mood boost,” she says. “Two-thirds of that magnitude is how bad you feel when you use X.”

The action most associated with lowered wellbeing was scrolling the feed, which was what people did 74 per cent of the time they used the platform (the most frequent behaviour by far). That tracks, considering that most X usage is rather passive: 80 per cent of the content on X is created by only 10 per cent of its users.    

Researchers found some surprising dead ends as well. There was no impact seen on anxiety, and interacting with people who had different political views didn’t increase a user’s polarization (they speculate perhaps it’s actually echo chambers that make people lean further into their opinions).

The data was collected in 2021, and researchers worried that Elon Musk’s radical impact on the platform could mean the study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, would soon become obsolete. Regardless, Oldemburgo de Mello says its findings on passive use and the fact that social media’s impact is connected to motive and behaviour are applicable to other social media platforms. 

“I would expect people to come to social media with maybe a different motivation and different patterns of behaviours,” she says. “Maybe we all should be more intentional with our social media use, avoiding it when we’re bored or frustrated.”