Using Facebook without contributing, in the form of messages and comments on your friends’ posts, makes you feel bad, the company said today. In a remarkable blog post, citing both internal and academic research, the company said “in general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward.” At the same time, actively communicating with friends “is linked to improvements in well-being,” the company said.
The post was authored by the Facebook’s director of research, David Ginsberg, and Moira Burke, a research scientist at the company. It comes at the end of a year in which more people are questioning the effect of social media on society — and in which a growing number of high-ranking former employees have expressed regrets about the products they built at Facebook. The company has also been roiled by criticism that it failed to protect the platform against misuse by Russian agents during the 2016 presidential election.
This week, former head of growth Chamath Palihapitiya caused a stir when he said he felt “tremendous guilt” about his time at Facebook. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said. (Today he attempted to walk back his comments.)
Here’s the bad news about social media, the company said in its blog post:
In one experiment, University of Michigan students randomly assigned to read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than students assigned to post or talk to friends on Facebook. A study from UC San Diego and Yale found that people who clicked on about four times as many links as the average person, or who liked twice as many posts, reported worse mental health than average in a survey. Though the causes aren’t clear, researchers hypothesize that reading about others online might lead to negative social comparison — and perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering. Another theory is that the internet takes people away from social engagement in person.
But there’s good news as well, Facebook said:
On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being. This ability to connect with relatives, classmates, and colleagues is what drew many of us to Facebook in the first place, and it’s no surprise that staying in touch with these friends and loved ones brings us joy and strengthens our sense of community.
A study we conducted with Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who sent or received more messages, comments and Timeline posts reported improvements in social support, depression and loneliness. The positive effects were even stronger when people talked with their close friends online. Simply broadcasting status updates wasn’t enough; people had to interact one-on-one with others in their network. Other peer-reviewed longitudinal research and experiments have found similar positive benefits between well-being and active engagement on Facebook.
It is important to note here that correlation and causation are different. It may be possible that happier interact more on Facebook, and people who are depressed interact less while they browse the News Feed.
But in an important way, Facebook has now acknowledged some of critics’ chief concerns about the platform — including that it can make users feel worse about themselves by inviting negative comparisons with the lives their friends are leading to their own.
The authors conclude that the solution is not to use Facebook less, but to use it more — and differently. “In sum, our research and other academic literature suggests that it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being,” they wrote.
They also outlined steps the company is taking to make Facebook a happier place, including improving the quality of the News Feed, allowing you to mute bothersome people for 30 days, and make it easier for you to hide posts from your former romantic partners. “We don’t have all the answers, but given the prominent role social media now plays in many people’s lives, we want to help elevate the conversation,” the company said.