Surprised? Probably not.
In the 11 years since Facebook opened registration to the public, social media has become a supreme cultural force, wholly influencing news, politics, marketing and entertainment in ways not even print media achieved in its prime. Whether it does so for better or worse is up for debate, but it’s on the personal level that the impact of social media is at its most profound. For in the process of redefining how users socialise, it has managed to contort their very identity.
It sounds extreme, but according to the most definitive study yet performed on the relationship between social media and well-being, it’s true: as users consume social media, social media is consuming its users.
Though previous research has confirmed the validity of internet addiction, and found links between social media use and negative user tendencies such as unfavourable self-comparison and increased periods of inactivity, skeptics have continued to question whether social media is a contributor to these tendencies, or if people who already deal with such conditions are just more likely to use it.
With their new study, UC San Diego Assistant Professor and social network analyst Holly B. Shakya and Yale Professor Nicholas A. Christakis have provided an answer.
Collating three waves of data collected from 5208 adults over two years, the pair measured varying factors related to an individual’s well-being – life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index (BMI) – and observed how they changed in relation to the subject’s use of Facebook.
While not everyone allowed the researchers access to their Facebook data, most did. This, in conjunction with information on the subject’s ‘real world’ social networks, gave Shakya and Christakis an unprecedented overview of the changes that occurred over the study’s duration.
Overall, the more time subjects spent on Facebook, the more their state of well-being diminished. Here are some of their key findings:
Mental Health Suffered the Biggest Decline
Over the length of the study, subjects self-reported an average 5% decrease in their overall mental health.
Shakya and Christakis put this down to the self-comparison that social media inspires. As users browse the curated timelines of digital associates, they compare their raw, unfiltered lives with the carefully chosen highlights of others. A sense of inadequacy is born from this comparison. An irrational one. After all, perhaps the other parties are thinking the exact same way about them.
Real World Social Links Were Most Consistent
Alongside the well-being factors associated with social media use, Shakya and Christakis also observed how subjects real world interactions with friends changed.
At three points during the study, subjects were asked to rank their level of intimacy with friends, and note how many times they had interacted with them in person. The results remained consistent throughout.
Why? Because the nuances of a friendly relationship – nuances that have defined how humans interact for millennia – don’t translate to digital discussion. By having their friend take the time to see them, to look them in the eye, to talk and listen, laugh or console, they found the happiness social media had been steadily leeching off them.
It’s Not Just About How Long You Spend on Facebook
Interestingly, subjects who made an effort to engage with or react to content – via likes, status updates, or link clinks – regardless of how often they used Facebook, experienced a greater negative shift in their well-being.
This infers that people who treat social media as a meaningful replacement for human interaction nevertheless feel the most dislocated from it. They might note a pang of jealousy or failure as they see a picture of a Facebook friend enjoying an experience they desire, and feel that the best way to react to it is by hitting the like button as a means of denying their feelings.
As Shakya and Christakis point out, this means quantity isn’t the sole deciding factor. Spending a lot of time scrolling through updates isn’t going to help, but if the quality of posts does not spark the kinds of positive reactions that spending time with a ‘real world’ friend does, the time a user spends online becomes irrelevant.
Fortunately, there’s a simple to solution: if Facebook doesn’t make you feel good, log off. Spend your newfound free time out with friends. Because no matter what social technology brings in the future, nothing will ever beat the real thing.