Sunday, 14 May 2017

The more you use Facebook, the worse you feel

That's the conclusion of a new study by Holly Shakya (UC San Diego) and Nicholas Christakis (Yale), which appears to be more robust than earlier studies (such as this one I discussed last November). As I noted about that earlier study, it was likely subject to a Hawthorne effect - that the participants who were asked to give up Facebook for a week anticipated that the study was evaluating whether it increased their happiness, and reported what the researcher expected to see.

In this new study, which Shakya and Christakis described in a recent Harvard Business Review article, they used data from about 8,000 respondents to the Gallup Panel of American households - at least, that's the number of respondents across three waves who agreed to share their Facebook data. No Hawthorne effects here - the respondents would have had no idea that they were being studied at the time they were engaging with Facebook. The variables of interest were:
the number of Facebook friends they had (“friend count”), the number of times in their history of Facebook use that they had clicked “like” on someone else’s content (“lifetime like count”), the number of links they had clicked in the past 30 days (“30-day link count”), and the number of times they had updated their status in the past 30 days (“status count”).
Shakya and Christakis then looked at how self-reported physical and mental health, self-reported life satisfaction, and body mass index (BMI) varied by the intensity of Facebook use. Importantly, because they have multiple observations of data from the same people, they can look at how previous Facebook use is related to current wellbeing.

In the simple cross-sectional analyses, they find that Facebook use is associated with worse physical and mental health, lower life satisfaction, and higher BMI. However, those results are all correlations. It may be that people with worse physical health and higher BMI spend more time on sedentary activities, which include Facebook, and that people how are unhappier or who have mental health problems spend more time on Facebook in a vain attempt to make themselves happier or to feel more connected with people.

The more robust results are those that look at how previous Facebook use is associated with current measures of wellbeing, while also controlling for the number of real-world social connections. In that case, there is no longer any association between Facebook use and BMI, but Facebook 'lifetime like count' and '30-day link count' are both associated with worse mental and physical health, and lower life satisfaction. In addition, 'status count' was associated with worse mental health. All of which suggests that those who have engaged more intensively with Facebook in the past, have worse current wellbeing. It's still not quite proving causality though, since people who were previously using Facebook a lot are clearly different from those using it less. However, here's what the authors concluded:
The associations between Facebook use and compromised well-being may stem from the simple fact that those with compromised well-being may be more likely to seek solace or attempt to alleviate loneliness by excessively using Facebook in the first place. However, the longitudinal models accounted for well-being measures in wave t when including Facebook use to predict the well-being outcomes in wave t + 1. Also, in our final models, we included degree (or real-world friendship counts) to adjust for this possibility, and the results remained intact. This provides some evidence that the association between Facebook use and compromised well-being is a dynamic process. Although those with compromised wellbeing may be more likely to use Facebook, even after accounting for a person’s initial well-being, we found that using Facebook was associated with a likelihood of diminished future well-being. The exception to this is the case of BMI.
And in their HBR article, the authors write:
Although we can show that Facebook use seems to lead to diminished well-being, we cannot definitively say how that occurs. We did not see much difference between the three types of activity we measured — liking, posting, and clicking links, (although liking and clicking were more consistently significant) — and the impact on the user. This was interesting, because while we expected that “liking” other people’s content would be more likely to lead to negative self-comparisons and thus decreases in well-being, updating one’s own status and clicking links seemed to have a similar effect (although the nature of status updates can ostensibly be the result of social comparison-tailoring your own Facebook image based on how others will perceive it). Overall our results suggests that well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use. If this is the case, our results contrast with previous research arguing that the quantity of social media interaction is irrelevant, and that only the quality of those interactions matter.
Certainly, this study is a large step up from the previous study by Morten Tromholt I discussed last year, and provides stronger evidence that we should limit our time spent on social media. Here's to more real world interaction!

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