Study: Facebook makes you feel bad

By Janine Weisman
July 1st, 2017

Nearly 1.3 billion daily active Facebook users around the world spend an average of 50 minutes each day using the social media network or one of its apps, according to the company.

But they might be using Facebook at the risk of their own health and happiness. A recent study documented a negative association between Facebook use and overall well-being in contrast to the positive impact of in-person interactions.

A pair of authors found that liking the content of others and clicking links significantly predicted later self-reports of diminished physical and mental health and life satisfaction.

“If I go out with my colleagues and we’re laughing and having fun together, we’re not counting how many times this person laughed at the other’s joke,” said lead author Holly B. Shakya, Ph.D., assistant professor of global health at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

“That quantification, that constant feedback is addicting. And so anything that’s addicting really doesn’t make you feel good. If you have to compulsively check your phone to see how many likes you got, that’s detracting from being present in the moment.”

Shakya and her co-author Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., who directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale Institute for Network Science in New Haven, Connecticut, published their study in January in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

They used three waves of data from more than 5,000 adults from a national Gallup survey that assessed several measures of subjective well-being over two years. Also used were several different measures of Facebook usage to see how well-being changed over time.

Measures of well-being included life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health and body-mass index (BMI).

Facebook use measures included the number of Facebook friends, creating status updates, liking others’ posts, and clicking on links.

The authors also had measures of participants’ real world lives, asking each wave to name up to eight friends with whom they discuss important matters and spend their free time. Respondents were asked to rate how close they were with each nominated friend and the frequency of their in-person interactions.

Having more Facebook friends was associated with better mental health, but most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year.

Nominating more real-world friends, feeling close to those friends and interacting with them more frequently were associated with better mental health.

The findings suggested that using Facebook is associated with having a higher BMI, but Shakaya said it doesn’t mean that using Facebook is causing them to be overweight.

“It didn’t hold up in the longitudinal study,” Shakaya said. “It could be that the analysis wasn’t sensitive enough or it could be just that people who are heavier tend to use social media more because they’re less likely to be active people.

However, having a larger number of real-world friends was associated with lower BMI.

The results suggest that well-being declines can be attributed to both quantity and quality of Facebook use, which contrasts with previous research that concluded that only the quality of interactions mattered.

Humans are biologically programmed for social interaction in person from seeing a person’s face and body language and, listening to their tone of voice, Shakya said. So, responding to other people’s social media profiles and trying to curate your own can be stressful, she added.

“There’s something more fundamental and real about that interaction than what takes place online when you’re second guessing yourself and wondering how people are interacting to your posting and potentially interacting with people who you don’t know that well and you don’t really have committed relationships with,” Shakya said.

A major strength of the study was that it measured actual Facebook use rather than self-reported use.
But there were limitations. Not everyone in the Gallup sample allowed the authors to access to their Facebook data. Respondents who gave permission to use their Facebook data were younger (48 years vs. 57 years), more educated, more likely to be female (58 percent vs. 50 percent), and more likely to be unmarried (66 percent vs. 71 percent).

They also had slightly lower scores on mental health and life satisfaction, significantly more self-reported friends (4.5 vs. 4.0), and less time spent interacting in person with real-world friends.

The survey did not assess clinical depression or other potential health conditions that could have increased the likelihood of an individual spending more time on Facebook.

Shakya said psychologists and others who treat individuals struggling in some way with their lives should ask them about how much time they are spending on social media and how it is making them feel.

“What we didn’t get in the study but a psychologist could get is really the context of what’s happening in those interactions,” Shakya said.

Nearly eight in 10 online Americans use Facebook, more than double the share that uses Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram or LinkedIn, according to a November 2016 report by the Pew Research Center.

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