Do you check social media at work? Here’s why it’s not as bad as you think.

If you’re like me (and the majority of other people), you’ve more than likely checked social media during the workday. And whether it was a quick peek on Instagram, a casual Twitter perusal, or some light job prospecting on LinkedIn, you probably felt a pang of guilt for doing so.

Social media is one of the first things people bring up when they talk about digital distractions at work. But just how bad is it?

I recently spoke with Sabri Ben-Achour from Marketplace about the impact of social media in the workplace and whether or not it’s harmful to our productivity.

Here is a link to the episode (the segment starts at 16:41), or you can use the player below for the direct clip. It’s an interesting piece with a range of viewpoints, from everyday workers to researchers from Stanford and MIT.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that social media must be bad for productivity. Facebook and Twitter don’t care what you’re trying to focus on (whether that’s finishing a spreadsheet or having dinner with friends). Yet according to our research, social media is only a minor player when it comes to workplace distractions.

There’s more to the conversation than just saying “social media at work is bad.” And so I wanted to expand on the interview with some insights into how social media impacts your work, productivity, and work-life balance.

Are people spending as much time on social media at work as they think?

social media at work - fb

How much time is social media really taking up at work?

“A lot…”

“Probably 3-4 hours a day… it’s not pretty.”

“Every time my boss turned her back I was on my phone and not doing what I was supposed to do.”

These are just a few of the responses Sabri got from people on the street in New York. And listening to them, it sounds like social media certainly is a huge problem!

But there are some good reasons to think this estimate might not really match reality.

At RescueTime, one of the most common things we hear from users is that once they see their personal data, they realize their ideas about how they spend their time are substantially different from the actual numbers.

In other words, we think we’re on social media a lot more than we actually are.

I’ve noticed this anecdotally from our users (a lot of them!) but there’s also real research about how people’s perceptions square with their reality.

Several years ago, we worked on a study with Rey Junco at Harvard University where he studied the differences between self-reported measures of time spent on Facebook throughout the day and actual time spent on the site (as measured by RescueTime).

The results were surprising, to say the least.

“Here is the really interesting part, students significantly overestimated the amount of time they spent on Facebook. They reported spending an average of 149 minutes per day on Facebook which was significantly higher than the 26 minutes per day they actually spent on the site.”

This happens just as often with people who think they work excessively long hours. In fact, one study found most people overestimate their working hours by 5-10%.

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Why you think you spend more time on social media at work than you actually do

Rey’s study didn’t reach a conclusion on the reasons why this disconnect exists. But I have a few theories:

Reason #1: You feel guilty


Anecdotally, I only see this dramatic over-estimation with things like social media, news, and shopping. In other words, things that feel like personal indulgences during the workday.

People feel like they shouldn’t be doing them, so the fact they do them at all amplifies how much they think they’re doing them. I think of this as a self-imposed ‘guilt tax’ on the time we spend on social media.

So I think before asking if the excessive time workers are spending on social media is a problem, it’s important to be clear about how much time we’re actually talking about here.

An hour? Two? Three? Not even.

Looking at data from RescueTime users, we see that on average, people tend to spend about 30 minutes during working hours on a combination of social media and news sites (Which could easily be entirely contained within a lunch break, for example.)

Reason #2: You’re multitasking

social media at work multitasking

Another valid theory for why people think they spend more time on social media at work than they actually do is that hardly anyone does it all at once.

That’s simply not the way we consume information these days. Rather, our media consumption (entertainment, social media, news) tends to be in short bursts and is driven by notifications. Strung together, these short sessions can feel like they’re always present throughout our day, making it feel like a much longer total time.

This, in fact, can be problematic, especially when trying to solve hard problems that require long locks of uninterrupted focus. When attention is split, it can impair thinking and problem-solving ability—lowering IQ by 10%.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the impact of multitasking on our productivity. But we’re missing the (much larger) picture if we only look at social media as the cause of it.

Multitasking is rampant in the workplace, and a large part of it comes from bouncing between work activities. Social apps may have been the pioneers of capturing our attention and getting us hooked on new information, but those ideas have made their way into the tools we use for work as well.

The promise of new information that will help us do our work better is difficult to ignore, and the pressures to not be a blocker to your teammates have made us choose responsiveness over deep, quality thinking.

Social apps may have been the pioneers of capturing our attention, but those ideas have made their way into the tools we use for work as well. Click To Tweet

Our data shows that, on average, people check their work communication tools like email or Slack, once every 6 minutes. Slack’s own data states that most people leave the application open all day, every day. And for the times that those apps aren’t sitting open on our desktop, they’re always just one push notification away from sucking us back in.

There is a telling observation in the Marketplace segment by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford. He noted that:

“It (productivity growth) is particularly bad since the mid-2000s, so the last 10 to 15 years. And the reason this is such a surprise is we’re surrounded by amazing new technology, but we just don’t see it in the productivity numbers.”

This timeline lines up with the rise of platforms and services that put real-time information and always-on responsiveness as their top priorities. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Reason #3: You’re thinking about productivity all wrong

The problem with Dr. Bloom’s comment is that it’s focusing on the traditional idea that productivity = output. However, that’s not the case with how most people work today.

According to MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, we should question if the way we measure productivity is flawed in the first place.

“It [spending time on social media] is good for them, they have a more pleasant job, they’re spending more time-consuming things. And if they’re still delivering what they promised, then our economy is actually more productive than we thought.”

In other words: What’s the problem if we’re able to engage with social media and hit our deadlines? Should we measure productivity by pure numbers or effectiveness? Is it quantity or quality?

Social media makes this a tricky question as it’s free and doesn’t get measured in the way productivity is traditionally calculated. By definition, if something has zero price–like social media, Wikipedia, or streaming music–it doesn’t appear in GDP (how economists have measured national productivity since the 1930s).

But who would say that the creation of digital goods—even free ones like social media—hasn’t added value to our society?

Erik’s lab is doing some fascinating work with this idea and looking at ways to measure the impact of free services like Facebook and Twitter. In one recent study they found that:

“The increase in consumer surplus created by free internet services to be over $100 billion per year in the US alone.”

On a large scale, social media has created a huge amount of under-reported value (and productivity).

Reason #4: Technology has brought our personal lives into our workday (and our work lives into our personal time)

Social media at work

Lastly, all of these scary quotes around social media at work tend to ignore one major point. The boundaries around work are rapidly changing. It used to be relatively easy to keep your personal life at home and your work at work. Now, it’s become so easy to instantly connect with information that the natural barriers have eroded.

And if those barriers are gone, what happens when the tide flows the other way?

Just as personal information and social media flow into the workday, work doesn’t stay at work as easily as it once did. And while it’s important to question what this does to our productivity, it’s equally as important to look at the effects on our work-life balance and personal wellbeing.

Our data from 2018 shows that 26% of work is done outside of normal working hours. While 40% of people use their computers after 10 pm during the workweek.

We even work most weekends. Most people average at least 1 hour of work on nearly half of all weekend days.

We’re more accessible than ever. And people and governments are starting to finally understand that willpower isn’t enough to combat our broken work-life balance. In France, the Right to Disconnect Law now makes it illegal for companies to expect employees to check email outside of work hours (While back in the US, a Yelp employee was recently fired for allegedly not checking email over Easter weekend).

Social media at work isn’t the boogeyman so many make it out to be. But it isn’t great either.

All this is to say there’s a more nuanced conversation that needs to happen around social media at work. Clearly, we need to set boundaries if we want to stay focused and productive. But more than that we need to find balance.

When the lines between work and life become blurred, we need to focus on both sides of the equation.

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Robby Macdonell

CEO at RescueTime