April 26, 2017

Your Facebook habit might be making you sad

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 3, 2018.

A new study has confirmed the downsides of social media use: According to the researchers, too much time on Facebook can be bad for your mental health. 

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Holly Shakya of University of California, San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, explain that the research to date on links between social media use and health has been mixed. Some research suggests that social media use can detract from real-world relationships and undermine self-esteen by fostering unfavorable social comparisons, while other studies suggest that social media use can strengthen social support systems and reinforce real-world interactions.

New research

In a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Shakya and Christakis draw on a robust dataset take one of the closest looks yet at the issue.

Their study examined the Facebook use of 5,208 adults over two years, as well as three separate waves of Gallup data on self-reported measures of well-being—such as measures of physical and mental health, life satisfaction, and body mass index.

Notably, Shakya and Christakis had direct access to participants' Facebook data, which allowed them to examine participants' specific usage metrics such as how frequently they liked posts, posted content, and clicked links. Shakya and Christakis also assessed data on the strength of participants' real-world social relationships by asking participants in each wave to identify eight close friends—four with whom they spent their free time and four with whom they discussed important issues.

According to the researchers, the study set itself apart from prior research on the topic because it assessed three waves of data over two years, meaning that researchers could track how changes in social media use were associated to changes in well-being. In addition, the study used objective measures of Facebook use, as opposed to self-reported measures of Facebook use. Lastly, the researchers had data on respondents' real-world social networks, which let them compare face-to-face interactions and online interactions.

Facebook use linked to decline in well-being

The study found that all types of Facebook use were correlated with subsequent reductions in well-being—particularly for mental health, where researchers found that Facebook use in one year predicted a decline in mental health in a later year. "We found consistently that both liking others' content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction," the researchers wrote.

Moreover, the researchers found that when compared to baseline Facebook use, increased Facebook use correlated with diminished future well-being even when the researchers controlled for users' initial well-being, Facebook use, and the strength of their real-world social networks.

While the study did not examine why Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being, it did indicate that "well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use," the researchers wrote. They added, "Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real world interaction we need for a healthy life."

Further, Shakya and Christakis speculate that "exposure to the carefully curated images from others' lives leads to negative self-comparison, and the sheer quantity of social media interaction may detract from more meaningful real-life experiences." They conclude, "What seems quite clear, however, is that online social interactions are no substitute for the real thing" (Shakya/Christakis, Harvard Business Review, 4/10; Welsh, McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 4/11).

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