Researchers claim to have evidence of what many of us have long since suspected: Facebook makes you sad.
There is no shortage of studies that point to the negative impact of social media on people's overall well-being – some or most of which could easily be left in the "Luddite" box – but Holly Shakya from the University of California, San Diego and Nicholas Christakis from Yale claim to have carried out a broad study that points to the negative impact of the social media site.
The researchers tracked just over 5,000 adults over the course of three years (2013–2015). They gathered information on their use of Facebook as well as self-reported information about their health, both physical and mental, their weight, and general well-being.
Each person also named up to four close friends and up to four other friends that they spend a lot of time with as a way of assessing real-world interactions.
The results are depressingly predictable: using Facebook made people comparatively less happy.
The key metric is that for every one percent increase in "likes," clicks on links and status updates, the researchers saw a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in their self-reported mental health. And that result was repeated across the board in a multitude of different ways.
What's more, the paper says that the downside of using Facebook was pretty evenly matched with the upside of "offline interactions" – otherwise known as meeting people in the real world. The conclusion? It "suggests a possible tradeoff between offline and online relationships."
Not all bad
It's worth pointing out that not all studies of the impacts of Facebook and other social media services are negative. Some have shown that having more "friends" gives people a greater sense of social support and lowers stress. And others have concluded that it is a case of quality not quantity when it comes to online interactions – in other words, spend less time and get more out of it.
There are also some caveats that the researchers themselves point to: a lot of the users did not allow access to their Facebook data, most of whom were younger adults. As such, the results may be skewed toward how older people experience social media (the researcher did control for age and sex).
The mean age of those who provided Facebook data was 48 – an age at which people have spent over half their adult lives without the pervasive influence of the internet. Plus, of course, some biases can introduce themselves into any study when it is relying on self-reported data.
That said, the approach, the analysis and the survey size look solid enough for the paper to be taken seriously.
The upshot, according to the authors: "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."
In other words, people turn to Facebook more when they are already feeling sad because they don't want to want to engage with people directly.
"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."
In other words, by tracking people who were both sad and not sad over time, it does appear that Facebook usage tends to make people more miserable.
And then there's this: "Our cross-sectional models showed a strong correlation between Facebook use and higher BMI. All three of these associations dropped out in our prospective models, however, which suggests that those with higher BMI may be more frequent Facebook users, though it is unlikely that Facebook use itself is the cause of higher BMI."
Which in plain English means that overweight people use Facebook more but that Facebook doesn't make you fatter. Which is good, right?
In summary: "Updating one's own status and clicking links would seem to suggest that the relationships we found are simply a matter of quantity of use ... Overall, Facebook use does not promote well-being and individual social media users might do well to curtail their use of social media and focus instead on real-world relationships."
So, everyone, your Mom was right: get off that computer and go outside and play with your friends. ®