Facebook users get a psychological lift when they take a weeklong break from the popular social media site, according to a recent study conducted in Denmark.
The finding was particularly true for people who are either heavy users of Facebook or who “lurk” there without interacting very often with others, as well as for people who tend to envy others on the site.
“Taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive,” writes the study’s author, Morten Tromholt, who began doing this research while working on a graduate degree in sociology at the University of Copenhagen.
The study was published late last year in the journal Cyberphysiology, Behaviour and Social Networking.
A more rigorous approach
As Tromholt points out in his paper, other studies have reported similar results. But those studies were observational, which mean they demonstrated only a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship, between Facebook use and negative well-being. Furthermore, a few observational studies have found either no links between Facebook use and well-being or a positive effect.
To get better evidence on this topic, Tromholt decided to conduct a randomized controlled study. He recruited 1,095 Danish Facebook users for a one-week study. The volunteers had an average age of 34 years, an average of 350 Facebook friends and spent an average of slightly more than an hour on the social media site daily. They were overwhelmingly (86 percent) women.
On the first day of the study, Tromholt had each of the participants fill out a 15-minute online questionnaire, which asked a variety of questions about their use of Facebook, including questions aimed at determining how much “Facebook envy” they experience while on the site. (Facebook envy is just a name for the envy that some people experience when they make unrealistic social comparisons between their lives and the lives of others after viewing what others are posting on the site.) The participants also answered questions aimed at assessing their emotions, mood and level of life satisfaction.
Tromholt then randomly assigned each of the volunteers to do one of the following: not use Facebook for one week (this was the “treatment” group) or keep using Facebook as usual (the “control” group). After the week was over, the participants re-took the online questionnaire. A total of 888 participants finished this second questionnaire (and, therefore, the study), an 81 percent completion rate.
Tromholt’s analysis of the results showed that, overall, the people who gave up Facebook for a week reported more positive emotions and a greater level of satisfaction with their life than did the people who continued to visit the site.
Life satisfaction was measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “very dissatisfied” and 10 being “very satisfied.” The “treatment” group’s average score was 8.11 compared with the “control” group’s score of 7.74.
The participants’ emotional state was measured by assigning points for their answers about nine specific emotions (enthusiasm, happiness, loneliness, life enjoyment, depressiveness, sadness, decisiveness, anger and worry). Total point scores could range from nine to 45, with higher scores reflecting greater emotional wellbeing.
People in the treatment group scored an average of 36.21 points compared with 33.99 in the control group.
Both of these effects were greatest for three specific groups: 1) heavy Facebook users (defined as the third of the study’s participants who reported spending the most time on the site), 2) users who reported the greatest Facebook envy and 3) “passive” users (people who spend most of their time on Facebook looking at what other people are posting, but who seldom post themselves — or interact with others on the site).
This study has many limitations. The study’s participants were Danish, and most were women. The findings, therefore, might not apply to the general population. In addition, Tromholt had no way of making sure everyone in the “treatment” group stayed off Facebook for the full week. Indeed, 13 percent of them acknowledged that they had “cheated,” although most said they had taken only a single peek at the site during the week when they were supposed to be avoiding it.
More importantly, although this study was randomized, it was not “blinded.” People knew which group they were in. Those in the treatment group, therefore, may have expected to feel better after quitting Facebook for a week — expectations that could have affected their scores.
The effect of the study not being blinded can be seen, perhaps, in one result from the control group. During the week of the study, their daily average use of Facebook dropped from slightly more than 60 minutes to about 45 minutes — an indication that just being enrolled in the study may have altered their perceptions of “healthy” Facebook use.
There are a couple additional caveats: Although the differences between the two groups on the two scales — life satisfaction and emotional status — were statistically significant, they were also rather small. Furthermore, as Tromholt points out in his paper, the findings describe average effects.
“Human beings are complex and therefore we are almost never able to identify deterministic causality within the social sciences,” he writes. “Instead, we claim to identify connections of probabilistic causality where people — on average — are affected by a given treatment.”
Intriguing but not definitive
As a result, although this study found “probabilistic” causal evidence that Facebook has a negative effect on well-being, it doesn’t fully prove that premise. Still, it appears to be the best designed study we have on this subject to date, so the findings can’t be ignored, either.
But that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to give up Facebook entirely, particularly if you find, as many people do, it’s a convenient way to stay in touch with far-flung family and friends.
“These findings indicate that it might not be necessary to quit Facebook for good to increase one’s wellbeing, — instead an adjustment of one’s behaviour on Facebook could potentially cause a change,” writes Tromholt.
Just check the site less often — and if you’re a “lurker,” you might want to think about actually engaging with your friends on the site.
Oh, and if you’re one of those people who tends to feel envy (and the depression that can ensue from envy) when on Facebook, Tromholt offers this simple advice: “avoid browsing the sections (or specific friends) on Facebook causing this envy.”
Facebook does have an “unfollow” feature, after all.
FMI: You can read Tromholt’s study in full on Cyberphysiology, Behaviour and Social Networking’s website.