Facebook is bad for mental health?

There has been a  lot of  talk in the news recently about Facebook, and much of the discussion has focused on Facebook’s role in politics and journalism and user privacy. But there are other discussions about the Facebook product itself, with a focus on the well-being and psychological health of users. Specifically, some political commentators are making somewhat inaccurate and exaggerated claims about Facebook’s psychology – which is not healthy, making users feel depressed and / or lonely . It is important to think critically about this topic, so this article is dedicated to verifying those facts.

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In  an article  [1] and a  podcast episode  [2], Matthew Yglesias of Vox criticized Facebook’s main functions, claiming that Facebook is linked to mental health problems and feelings of social isolation. To his credit, Yglesias referred to some scientific studies that systematically examined people’s well-being due to the use of Facebook, which support his thesis. So why do people use a product that makes them feel alone and unhappy? Yglesias (along with Ezra Klein and Sarah Kliff) use a crude analogy that Facebook is like an unhealthy candy, which is “bad” but also “pleasurable”. [2]

But is the scientific consensus on Facebook really that one-sided? In fact, the evidence from psychological research is much more mixed than what readers believe . There are plenty of studies showing positive associations   between Facebook and well-being (rather than negative associations), while other studies have found no significant effects for most people.

For example, a  2016 study in Germany  found that Facebook users scored  higher  on measures of life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem and social support, and were slightly less depressed compared to non-users [3]. A 2017 study in Hong Kong  found no evidence for “Facebook depression” in its sample, except for those who scored high on the neuroticism personality  trait  [4]. Only for highly neurotic individuals, time spent on Facebook was associated with depressive symptoms. Another  study by researchers in Singapore and the USA  found that Facebook was linked to depression only when people were jealous of others. [5]  After controlling feelings of envy, the use of Facebook  reduced  depression. The authors suggested that having emotional intelligence can help people regulate feelings of envy to allow for pleasant use of Facebook.

These data, however, are correlational, so one cannot infer much about the causation. But a  2012 study by researchers in Germany and the US  used an experimental project, in which some participants were randomly assigned to a condition in which they received a daily email instructing them to post further status updates. Compared to the control group, participants in the “post more updates” group reported  less  loneliness over a 7-day period, and the results showed that they felt more socially connected with their friends. [6]

The beneficial effects of social networking sites (SNS) can be particularly pronounced in people who are shy or have low self-esteem . These individuals may find it more difficult to initiate and maintain social connections in their lives. Facebook allows more opportunities for socially anxious people to interact with others in a more comfortable environment. Researchers Julia Brailovskaia and Jürgen Margraf stated that “people with low self-esteem profit from using the NHS by making new friends and friends and meeting their need for belonging”. [3]

But doesn’t Facebook itself say that Facebook is bad? According to Yglesias, Facebook’s own people have admitted that social networking is bad for mental health, and the company discourages its employees from using it in the way that most people do. But it seems that Facebook’s comment was more general. In a blog post, Facebook scientists said  they are studying the positive and negative effects of using Facebook, and are working to design Facebook in a way that helps everyone to consume it in a way that is healthy and beneficial. [7] I see no evidence that Facebook employees use it differently than consumers, or that Facebook discourages its employees from the way it is popularly used.

In summary, while  some studies  have shown negative associations between Facebook use and well-being [8], other studies have found dramatically different results.

So, what’s the answer? Is Facebook good or bad for our mental health? 

Well, it can be a little bit of both, depending on how Facebook is used. Consider the variety of activities that people engage in on Facebook. Some use it for entertainment (for example, funny memes), others use it for information (for example, news). Some use it to connect with other people they already know (friends and family), while others use it to connect with strangers. Most importantly, some uses of Facebook are  active , involving direct communication with others, while passive use   involves meaningless scrolling and viewing content. Passive use can be problematic for well-being, but the same cannot be said about active use. [9] Considering the various types of activity that people display on social media sites, does it really make sense to group them all together and make over-generalized conclusions that Facebook is “bad”? Of course not. In fact, some researchers have noted that most studies do not differentiate between the various activities in which people engage in social media, and that “joining” these activities can be problematic. [6] It makes no sense to suggest a unique harmful mechanism for Facebook consumption.

The research findings on the question of Facebook use and well-being are (at best) mixed.  One thing, however, is clear. The bold claims made by political commentators about the psychological effects of using Facebook are overstated. But why are so many people convinced that Facebook is so bad for well-being? Do we have a big misunderstanding? Some suggest that people are exhibiting  moral panic about Facebook, which may be based on superstitions about new technologies. [4] A moral panic is an extreme and exaggerated concern about something that may not be too problematic. That is why it is so important for journalists and experts to not only get their facts right when reporting psychological studies, but also to give their audiences the right context. We don’t want the public (or legislators) to overdo it, which can accidentally create additional problems.

 

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