How do you feel after spending time on Facebook? Better, worse, or about the same? If you believe many of Facebook's well-produced marketing videos, you'd expect most people to answer that they have a warm, fuzzy feeling. After all, you're sharing time with friends, the people you care about.
Well, not according to a new study that tracks people's sense of their own well-being before and after logging on to the billion-strong network. Rather, the study found a marked negative impact on how people rate their own happiness after surfing their News Feeds.
"Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive 'offline' social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it," the study says.
Led by Ethan Kross, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, a team of researchers conducted an initial survey of 83 people in Ann Arbor, Michigan, asking about their Facebook habits and their self-esteem. Over the next 14 days, they sent the participants text messages five times a day, posing questions like "How do you feel right now?" and also asking how recently they had logged in.
The more people used Facebook, the worse they felt the next time they were contacted, the study found. And the more they used Facebook over the two weeks, "the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time." The results are published in the journal PLOS One.
Importantly, the participants did not report any negative reactions from direct social contact, suggesting their online activity was the main cause of their decreased sense of well-being. The study also controlled for the possibility the volunteers were predisposed to misery or loneliness before they started the experiment.
The results were "statistically significant" for the group, though relatively small if you look at any one person. Still, the effect, if multiplied across millions of Facebook users, could be quite big, the researchers say. "Identifying any factor that systematically influences [subjective well-being] is important, especially when that factor is likely to accumulate over time among large numbers of people." More than 1 billion people have Facebook accounts and around half log in daily, according to the company.
Reached via email, Kross says it could be that Facebook activates "a powerful social comparison process":
Other people tend to post information—pictures, announcements, etc—that make their lives appear to be great. Frequent exposure to such information could lead people to feel worse about their own lives. That's just one potential explanation. There are likely to be other factors too—for example, lack of interaction with other people directly.
That phenomenon may seem intuitive to some people who complain about Facebook, but use it anyway. Well, if you're in that category, here's one more reason to log off.