With people spending more time on social media, many rightly wonder
whether that time is good for us. Do people connect in meaningful ways
online? Or are they simply consuming trivial updates and polarizing
memes at the expense of time with loved ones?
These are critical questions for Silicon Valley — and for both of us.
Moira is a social psychologist who has studied the impact of the
internet on people’s lives for more than a decade, and I lead the
research team for the Facebook app. As parents, each of us worries about
our kids’ screen time and what “connection” will mean in 15 years. We
also worry about spending too much time on our phones when we should be
paying attention to our families. One of the ways we combat our inner
struggles is with research — reviewing what others have found,
conducting our own, and asking questions when we need to learn more.
A lot of smart people are looking at different aspects of this important issue. Psychologist Sherry Turkle asserts
that mobile phones redefine modern relationships, making us “alone
together.” In her generational analyses of teens, psychologist Jean
Twenge notes an increase in teen depression corresponding with technology use. Both offer compelling research.
But it’s not the whole story. Sociologist Claude Fischer argues
that claims that technology drives us apart are largely supported by
anecdotes and ignore the benefits. Sociologist Keith Hampton’s study of
public spaces suggests
that people spend more time in public now — and that cell phones in
public are more often used by people passing time on their own, rather
than ignoring friends in person.
We want Facebook to be a place for meaningful interactions with your
friends and family — enhancing your relationships offline, not
detracting from them. After all, that’s what Facebook has always been
about. This is important as we know that a person’s health and happiness
relies heavily on the strength of their relationships.
In this post, we want to give you some insights into how the research
team at Facebook works with our product teams to incorporate well-being
principles, and review some of the top scientific research on
well-being and social media that informs our work. Of course, this isn’t
just a Facebook issue — it’s an internet issue — so we collaborate with
leading experts and publish in the top peer-reviewed journals. We work
with scientists like Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon; Sonja Lyubomirsky
at UC Riverside; Dacher Keltner, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, and Matt
Killingsworth from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and have partnered closely with mental health clinicians and organizations like Save.org and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
What Do Academics Say? Is Social Media Good or Bad for Well-Being?
According to the research, it really comes down to how you use
the technology. For example, on social media, you can passively scroll
through posts, much like watching TV, or actively interact with friends —
messaging and commenting on each other’s posts. Just like in person,
interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply
watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse.
The bad: In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming
information — reading but not interacting with people — they report
feeling worse afterward. 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.
The good: 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.
In an experiment at Cornell, stressed college students randomly
assigned to scroll through their own Facebook profiles for five minutes
experienced boosts in self-affirmation
compared to students who looked at a stranger’s Facebook profile. The
researchers believe self-affirmation comes from reminiscing on past
meaningful interactions — seeing photos they had been tagged in and
comments their friends had left — as well as reflecting on one’s own
past posts, where a person chooses how to present themselves to the
In a follow-up study, the Cornell researchers put other students
under stress by giving them negative feedback on a test and then gave
them a choice of websites to visit afterward, including Facebook,
YouTube, online music and online video games. They found that stressed
students were twice as likely to choose Facebook to make themselves feel better as compared with students who hadn’t been put under stress....