Facebook has, in a lot of ways, changed how we interact on a daily basis. Whether with friends or family or colleagues or those acquaintances who think they’re friends but really they’re lucky to be considered acquaintances, to some degree all of our personal connections have been affected by the advent of social networking and in particular the social networking behemoth that is Facebook. A study published this past August through the Public Library of Science is one of many looking at how this new technology is affecting its users and spoiler alert, the results are not promising.
The study, carried out at the University of Michigan, examined the subjective well-being (basically how we feel about ourselves) of 82 participants over two weeks. Researchers sent out a text message every three hours or so (five per day) with a link to a survey that would randomly ask one of five questions about Facebook use, loneliness, worry, how they are feeling at the time, or how much direct social interaction they have had (direct being defined as face-to-face conversation or phone calls). What they found was that the more people had used Facebook, the worse they felt. These feelings were not found to be associated with direct social interactions though. Quite the contrary in fact, as participants generally reported feeling better following more personal forms of interaction.
Now there could be a lot reasons that someone would feel bad after having used Facebook. For example, maybe somebody felt bad beforehand and it’s just common for people to get on Facebook when they already feel lonely. Luckily the researchers thought of this and examined the possible relationships for a number of alternate explanations (such as the idea that any social interaction undermines how we feel about ourselves, an idea which sounds depressing in and of itself). The group didn’t find any relationship that would suggest a negative emotional state would lead to increased Facebook checking.
The media has made a fair amount of stories like this which link increased tech usage to depressive emotional states, and this study is no different (ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN). But there are a few things worth noting about the study’s mechanics that should put the results in perspective. Participants don’t seem to have been kept in the dark about the studies objectives, given the directness of the questions and their limited range. As such, it is a very real possibility that survey responses were skewed towards what the participants felt was expected of them, rather than honestly evaluating their own emotional state (a bias built into the study itself, which is usually remedied by keeping specific objectives from participants). At the same time, asking questions that are so narrow in focus, that is, only asking about loneliness and worry in connection with Facebook, could create subjective associations between those experiences which would further skew results. The study doesn’t seem to have addressed these types of possibilities in their set-up, which is unfortunate.
While there are some questions that this study leaves open, it is still an important result. Subjective well-being has been linked to a number of health concerns including overall health and longevity. This is the first study to examine our subjective experience of emotional health in connection with Facebook, rather than objective evaluations of psychology. True, its conclusions may be a bit shaky, given how the study was run, but it is only one more in a growing number of results showing how our rapidly growing digital networks may not be so beneficial for us. These results probably won’t keep us from using Facebook or Twitter or whatever else kids these days are spending all their time on, nor should they necessarily. But they probably should make us think a bit about how these sites are services are shaping our social lives and if we like what shape they’re beginning to take.