Does Facebook Make Us Unhappy and Unhealthy?

 

If you’re one of the almost two billion active users of Facebook, the site’s blend of gossip, news, animal videos and bragging opportunities can be irresistible. But is it good for you?

A rigorous study recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that it isn’t. Researchers found that the more people use Facebook, the less healthy they are and the less satisfied with their lives. To put it baldly: The more times you click “like,” the worse you feel.

The study’s authors, Holly Shakya, an assistant professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis, the director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, monitored the mental health and social lives of 5,208 adults over two years. The subjects agreed to participate in national surveys collected by the Gallup organization between 2013 and 2015 and, during that time, to share information with the researchers about their health, social lives and Facebook use.

The use of the Gallup survey at three different points let the scientists take informational snapshots of the participants’ health and social lives and chart how their feelings and behavior changed over the two years. The researchers also kept direct tabs on the subjects’ Facebook usage: how often they clicked “like,” clicked others’ posts or updated their own status.

Using standardized questionnaires, the researchers also asked about participants’ social lives: How often did they get together with friends and acquaintances in the real world, and how close did the participants feel to them? There were queries about life satisfaction, mental health and body weight, too.

The findings? Using Facebook was tightly linked to compromised social, physical and psychological health. For example, for each statistical jump (away from the average) in “liking” other people’s posts, clicking their links or updating one’s own status, there was a 5% to 8% increase in the likelihood that the person would later experience mental-health problems.

Responding to the study, Facebook cited an earlier paper by a company scientist and Carnegie Mellon University Prof. Robert Kraut. “The internet’s effect on your well-being depends on how you use it,” the authors wrote. Participants who received more Facebook comments than average from close friends reported a 1% to 3% uptick in satisfaction with life, mood and social support, the study reported. It also acknowledged that it’s hard to measure the emotional effect of the internet.

In the last couple of months, two other studies have cast a negative light on the social-media use of teenagers and young adults. One, of 1,787 Americans, found that social media increased feelings of isolation; the other, of 1,500 Britons, found that the websites—image-based sites in particular—exacerbated feelings of anxiety and inadequacy.

In their own study of adults on Facebook, Profs. Shakya and Christakis found a powerful link between real world, face-to-face social contact and better psychological and physical health all around, a finding matched by dozens of previous studies. What’s astonishing about this research is that the investigators had direct access to people’s Facebook data over a two-year period. With a dynamic picture of how the participants’ activities and outlook evolved over that time, they could see whether someone who was already sad or in poor health used Facebook more often—or whether their symptoms started or worsened in tandem with their online social activities.

Still, there are some nuances to consider. Why would online social activity be so damaging to health and well-being in this study when the same activity was found to be correlated with longevity in a 2016 study co-written by Prof. Christakis? The bottom line, he says, is that replacing in-person interactions with online contact can be a threat to your mental health. “What people really need is real friendships and real interactions,” he adds.

Appeared in the May 27, 2017, print edition as ‘Does Facebook Make Us Unhappy And Unhealthy?.’

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