Thursday August 15 2013
Over a billion people have Facebook accounts
“Spending time on Facebook can make you unhappy,” the Daily Mirror claims.
The paper reports on a small, short study that found that the more young people used Facebook, the worse they felt, and the more dissatisfied they were with life. The amount they used Facebook reduced how well they said they were currently feeling and how satisfied they were with their lives.
Researchers wanted to know if already unhappy people increase their time using Facebook, or if using Facebook will make people less happy. They claim to have established a definite "direction of travel" in their results: that Facebook use leads to sadness, but not vice versa. However, this claim would need to be validated by larger, longer-term, studies.
Whether the phenomenon of “Facebook status envy” (caused by seeing your friends’ exotic holiday snaps and reading about their wonderful social lives) is affecting people’s mental wellbeing is a matter of debate. Social networks can be useful in strengthening social connections, but logging out and seeing a friend in the flesh is still one of the best ways to keep cheerful. And you could always use an online social network to invite them round.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Michigan in the US and the University of Leuven, Belgium. There is no information about external funding, but the authors did declare no conflicts of interest.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed open access journal PLOS ONE, so the article is free to read or download.
It was covered fairly but uncritically in the press, although limitations, such as the small size and length of the study, were not reported.
What kind of research was this?
This two-week observational study aimed to find out whether using Facebook influenced people’s feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction with life.
The authors point out that over a billion people have accounts on Facebook, the world’s largest online social network. It is understood that more than half of these log in daily. But there has been little research looking at how using Facebook affects people’s wellbeing over time.
So far, the researchers say, studies of Facebook use and subjective wellbeing have been cross-sectional, where information is gathered at just a single point in time. This makes it impossible to know whether using Facebook influences wellbeing – or vice versa. Their study, which used a method of assessing subjective wellbeing called experience-sampling, aimed to overcome this.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 82 young adults living in the US, all of them with smartphones and Facebook accounts. At the start of the study, participants completed a number of well-established questionnaires to measure their satisfaction with life, level of self-esteem and whether they were depressed. They also asked about their motivation for using Facebook.
Over the next two weeks, participants received text messages at random times, five times a day. Each message contained a link to an online survey with five questions, which they were asked to answer using a sliding scale, as outlined below:
- How do you feel right now? – very positive (0) to very negative (100)
- How worried are you right now? – not at all (0) to a lot (100)
- How lonely do you feel right now? – not at all (0) to a lot (100)
- How much have you used Facebook since the last time we asked? – not at all (0) to a lot (100)
- How much have you interacted with other people "directly" since the last time we asked? – not at all (0) to a lot (100). Interacting directly included via the phone and face to face.
At the end of two weeks, participants completed another set of questionnaires that measured feelings of satisfaction with life, feelings of loneliness and also their number of Facebook “friends”. From this information the researchers analysed:
- Whether people’s tendency to interact with Facebook in between text messages influenced their feelings of wellbeing, controlling for how people felt at the start of the study.
- Whether average Facebook use over the 14-day period was related to their measurements of life satisfaction at the end of the study (after controlling for life satisfaction measurements at the start of the study)
What were the basic results?
The researchers found that:
- The more people used Facebook in the two weeks of the study, the worse they subsequently felt (affective wellbeing).
- The more they used Facebook over the whole two week study period, the more their satisfaction with life declined (cognitive wellbeing).
- Interacting directly with other people was associated with greater feelings of affective wellbeing, but not cognitive wellbeing.
- None of the findings were affected by the size of people’s Facebook networks, their motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, feelings of self-esteem or whether they were depressed.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
They say that – on the surface – Facebook provides “an invaluable resource for fulfilling the human need for social connection”. Yet rather than enhancing wellbeing, Facebook use predicts the opposite result for young adults – it may undermine it, they say.
This short study found a relatively small association between Facebook use and people’s sense of wellbeing. The authors stress that they controlled for people’s feelings at the start of the study, and measured Facebook use in relation to people’s feelings throughout the specified time period. This led them to state that: “These analyses indicated that Facebook use predicts declines in the two components of subjective wellbeing: how people feel moment to moment and how satisfied they are with their lives.”
However this confidence may be misplaced, as there were numerous limitations to this study.
These limitations included:
- The researchers relied on people accurately reporting Facebook use and filling in the online surveys in a consistent manner – a high range of scores was allowed for each domain (0-100), and so feeling"‘OK" might score 50 at one moment in time and 60 at another without the person actually feeling any different.
- The population sample was small and involved only young adults, so its findings may not be applicable to other people.
- This was an observational study with no control group. It may be the case that if anyone was asked five times a day whether they are feeling lonely and whether they have had any “proper” social interaction yet might make their scores go down.
This study would have been more useful if two groups of people had been questioned – with one group not using Facebook – to see if there was a significant difference in survey answers.
But more importantly, it is not known how far other factors affected people’s feelings of wellbeing during the period studied.
Due to its global popularity, Facebook and other social media networks such as Twitter are going to have an ongoing influence, whether for good or ill, on human psychology. This means that their potential effects on mood and behaviour are important areas of research. The authors of this study have rightly called for further research into their long-term effects.
Human connection is important to most people’s emotional health – and most psychologists would agree that logging out and visiting a loved one might be the best way to keep cheerful. Instead of liking someone’s status update, why not tell them you like them in person?
Read more about connecting with others for mental wellbeing.
Analysis by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.