Should employees be given social media breaks?

It’s no secret that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become a global phenomenon. While usage varies from country to country, the U.S. ranks high when it comes to the level of obsession with these 21st-century communication vehicles. According to a 2015 study by Informate Mobile Intelligence, Americans check their social media accounts an average of 17 times per day. That’s at least once every waking hour. Considering the highest usage was observed in those between the ages of 25 and 54, it’s easy to conclude that Americans’ social media compulsion is infiltrating the workplace, as people struggle not to sneak a peek–or two or 10–throughout the day.

“Employers are worried that their employees are using social media during times they should be working, but it’s very difficult to assess how much time that is and what is the actual impact on their ability to perform the job and be productive in the workplace,” says Jaklyn Wrigley, a labor and employment attorney at Fisher Phillips LLP. “There is a growing trend to put some reasonable controls on social media usage during working hours.”

While their gut instinct may be to issue an outright ban on the use of social media at work, some employers have begun instituting “social media breaks,” giving employees designated times to catch up on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media apps. The goal is not merely to please employees by granting them access to their social media universe, but to cut back on the distractions that come when employees are surreptitiously checking their accounts throughout the day. For a break-based approach to be success, Wrigley says, employees should be encouraged to turn off their social media notifications, so their work time is not continuously interrupted.

If an employer decides to grant social media breaks, Wrigley cautions them not to run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires them to pay workers for breaks of less than 20 minutes. With that in mind, she suggests employers create hybrid lunch-social media breaks, so the issue of paid or unpaid doesn’t become an issue. With the frequency with which Americans check their social media accounts, however, the question is whether just one centrally timed break will be sufficient, or if employees will still find unsanctioned opportunities to log into their accounts–and whether there’s any harm in that after all.

“In a moment of down time or when taking a mental break, it’s very easy to pull up the app and check your Facebook or Instagram,” says Wrigley. “As long as an employee is doing the job they’ve been hired to do, if they are spending a few minutes here and there on social media, what’s the harm in that?”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at