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Feeling stressed? Maybe it’s time to take a Facebook vacation

Staying off Facebook for just five days appears to reduce the amount of cortisol — a measure of stress — circulating in people’s bodies, according to a recent Australian study.

Research has suggested that the use of Facebook — or, more precisely, the excessive use of it — can have negative psychological consequences.
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

If your relaxing and long-anticipated summer vacation has come to an end, there’s another way you may be able to de-stress your life: Take a break from Facebook. 

Staying off Facebook for just five days appears to reduce the amount of cortisol — a measure of stress — circulating in people’s bodies, according to an Australian study published earlier this year in the Journal of Social Psychology.

There is a catch, however.

“While participants in our study showed an improvement in physiological stress by giving up Facebook, they also reported lower feelings of well-being,” explained Eric Vanman, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at the University of Queensland, in a released statement.

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“People said they felt more unsatisfied with their life, and were looking forward to resuming their Facebook activity,” he added. 

Mixed consequences

Actually, taking a vacation from Facebook is not that unusual. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, 61 percent of adult Facebook users reported they had purposely stayed off the social media site for several weeks or more. 

Although most of those people said they had done so because they felt Facebook was taking up too much of their time, some may have reaped a psychological benefit as well. Research has suggested that the use of Facebook — or, more precisely, the excessive use of it — can have negative psychological consequences. 

One study found, for example, that the more hours young adults spent on Facebook over a two-week period, the less likely they were to report feeling satisfied with their life. Another study found that the longer people stayed on Facebook during a single session, the lower their mood was afterward.

But how we use Facebook, not just how much, may be what affects our sense of well-being. A 2017 review of the subject found, for example, that although passive Facebook use (just reading other people’s posts) is associated with negative well-being, active use (putting up your own posts) was not.

Five days off

For the current study, Vanman and his colleagues recruited 138 Facebook users. The participants, whose ages ranged from 18 to 40, were divided into two groups: One group was instructed to give up Facebook for five days. The other was told to continue to use the social media site as they normally did.

At both the start and the end of the study, the participants provided saliva samples, which were used to measure cortisol levels. The participants also filled out detailed questionnaires, which included questions designed to measure stress and well-being.

The study found essentially no change in the before-and-after cortisol levels of the people who continued to use Facebook. In contrast, the cortisol levels of those who gave up Facebook showed a decline over the five days of the study.

The Facebook-users’ self-perception of stress did not change, however — “perhaps because they weren’t aware their stress had gone down,” said Vanman. In addition, their feelings of well-being decreased.

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“People experienced less well-being after those five days without Facebook — they felt less content with their lives — from the resulting social disconnection of being cut-off from their Facebook friends,” Vanman explained. 

“We don’t think that this is necessarily unique to Facebook, as people’s stress levels will probably reduce anytime they take a break from their favorite social media platforms,” he added.

Limitations and implications

The study has several important limitations. Most notably, the people who volunteered for the study were willing to give up Facebook for five days — a factor that may have introduced selection bias into the study. The effects of taking a Facebook break might be different among people unwilling to quit the site for a few days.

Another limitation of the study is that it involved a relatively short time period: five days. It’s unclear what would happen if people were to disconnect for much longer periods.  

Still, the findings are interesting.

“Taking short breaks from Facebook could be beneficial to one’s health, as any prolonged stress could contribute to mental and physical disorders,” Vanman and his colleagues write in their paper. “Precisely how long the breaks should be, how often they should occur, and when they might become too long, are questions that could not be addressed by our research. However, given that it is already know that ‘too much’ Facebook can reduce one’s feelings of well-being and increase negative mood via social comparison, the added knowledge that taking a break can reduce one’s physiological stress might cause the typical Facebook user to consider whether he or she might indeed benefit from a Facebook vacation, even though it risks feelings of being social disconnected.”

“As Facebook has quickly become a permanent fixture in everyday social life, addressing questions about people’s use of such online platforms should help us more fully understand how our evolutionary ‘old’ brains are coping with such rapidly developing social networks,” they add. 

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Social Psychology’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.