Research Alert


Co-corresponding Authors:  M. Mercedes Perez-Rodriguez, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Agnes Norbury, PhD, Post Doctoral Fellow, both of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Bottom Line: During lockdowns (stay-at-home orders issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic), people may face health risks as a result of decreased physical activity levels and increased social isolation (loneliness). We found that, specifically during lockdown, greater time spent using social media apps was associated with greater next day physical activity. One possible explanation for this finding is that digital social interactions help maintain psychological wellbeing (e.g., improve mood) and therefore motivation to be physically active, under difficult and socially-distanced conditions.

Results:  We found that when people spent more time using social media apps on a particular day, the next day they were significantly more active: both in terms of non-social smartphone app use and physical activity (total daily step count).  In addition, across people, there was a stronger relationship between daily physical activity and social app use during lockdown: during lockdown, people who spent more time on social apps also took more daily steps.

Why the Research Is Interesting:  Some researchers have proposed that social media and smartphone use have negative effects on mood and mental health, particularly in young people. However, the reality is likely to be more nuanced. In particular, it has been suggested that social media might help build community among marginalized groups of people, and enable people to recruit social support during periods of stress or isolation. Our findings favor taking a more nuanced approach when discussing the role of digital technology in wellbeing, such as focusing on particular populations, types of digital technology and social context.

When/What: We looked at daily passively recorded smartphone app use and step count data, as measured both before and after a government-mandated Covid-19 related lockdown in Madrid, Spain, earlier this year (38 days before and 45 days after lockdown, across February to April, 2020).

Who: The data we studied was provided by a group of people who signed up to take part in research involving smartphone-based monitoring of their phone use, physical activity, and mood levels. Importantly, all the people who took part in this study had a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder (most commonly, of anxiety or a mood-related disorder such as depression). This is significant, as we might expect people with these kind of symptoms to be more vulnerable to negative effects of lockdown and social isolation on mood. Overall, we looked at information from 127 different people, with 6201 total observations (data from different people on different days). The average age of people in the study was 45, and almost ¾ were women.

How: We used a form of analysis designed to handle multiple related pieces of information from the same people, over many days (technically, this was multilevel vector autoregression organized into Gaussian graphical network models). This form of analysis allowed us to look at both: 1) How levels of one factor measured on one day predicted measurements of all other factors on the next day, within the group as a whole (e.g., how does day 1 social media use relate to day 2 physical activity), and 2) Individual differences in measures across the group (e.g., is higher overall social media use associated with higher or lower physical activity).

Study Conclusions: In this observational study, we found evidence to support the existence of a positive path between social media use and daily physical activity, during pandemic-related lockdowns. A possible explanation for this association is that harnessing online social support resources guards against negative effects of in-personal social deprivation and other pandemic-related stressors on mood, which in turn helps maintain motivation to engage in physical activity. In order to confirm this idea, it would be necessary to study the effects of interventions that directly modify social media use (e.g., smartphone prompts to open communication apps) on mood and activity.

Paper Title:  Social media and smartphone app use predicts maintenance of physical activity during Covid-19 enforced isolation in psychiatric outpatients

Said Mount Sinai's Dr. Perez-Rodriguez of the research: “Excitingly, our results suggest that, for people who use apps to help monitor their mental health, it might be possible to identify when users are at risk for negative health consequences. For example, we can identify a decrease in health-promoting behaviors (e.g., physical activity) and a failure to engage in positive mechanisms that may help preserve physical activity such as the one identified here (social media use). This could help provide a route to early intervention, before symptoms worsen, for example via smartphone prompts to encourage the use of communication apps”.

Relevant Social Media handles: 

Twitter:  @agnesnorbury; @PerezLab1; @MountSinaiPsych;



To request a copy of the paper or to schedule an interview with Dr. Perez-Rodriguez, please contact Mount Sinai’s Director of Media and Public Affairs, Elizabeth Dowling, at [email protected] or at 347-541-0212.