Them’s the Data – Facebook is a Downer

Them’s the Data  – Facebook is a Downer

I finally got around to reading a research report out of U. Michigan’s psychology department Facebook thumbs down about how Facebook (FB) affects our well-being. To me, Facebook is mostly an odd, mindless exercise in engaging in and witnessing (often shameless) self-promotion.  I don’t know that FB makes me depressed, but it certainly doesn’t make me particularly excited or happy either. The study, led by Dr. Ethan Kross, has finally put some numbers to this.

Let me put my scientist hat on for a minute and explain what they did (yes, I have a PhD and I’ve obviously done outstanding things with it, like becoming a blogger for LYGO). Over 14 days, Kross and collaborators measured affect (how positive or negative you feel), worry, loneliness, and life satisfaction along with FB use. There are cool things about how they designed the study, like using “nested time-lag analysis” to get at causality (i.e., does FB make you feel lousy? Or do you use FB when you feel lousy?) and “experience-sampling” to get at natural behavior (i.e., subjects weren’t forced to come into a lab and use FB, which I’m sure would violate at least a few Human Subjects Protection laws).

What did they find? The short-term effect of using Facebook is that it made subjects feel more negative;  the long-term effect is that it reduced their overall satisfaction with their lives. FB also made them worry more. So basically, FB turns you into a DC comedian, if you’ve ever wondered what that feels like. Interestingly, although subjects didn’t use FB more when they were worried or felt negative, they did use it more when they felt lonely. In other words, you’re more likely to use FB when you’re lonely, which will then just make you feel even more negative and less satisfied with your life (probably because the last thing you want to do when you’re lonely is look at all of your friends’ awesome party, vacation, wedding and newborn baby photos).

Now, a caveat to all this is that FB’s impact on well-being isn’t whopping. Kross and co explain that this is expected – subjective well-being is affected by so many things, you can’t expect FB by itself to have a huge, overriding influence. However, I also think they lacked the details on subjects’ FB experience to really bring out the impact of FB on well-being. Had they asked a few probing questions, like :

  • Did you recently get defriended? If so, were you defriended by an immediate family member?
  • Did you view someone’s picture of the plate of dinner they just cooked,  and said person is not Bobby Flay or of similar culinary calibre?
  • Did you read any inane comments in response to the said plate of dinner picture? e.g. “I know where I’m going to dinner!!”
  • Did you recently “like” a consumer product, like men’s razors?
  • Did someone post a laundry list of chores they did with “check” written next to them, followed by “off to bed!!”?
  • Did you recently post a status update that you thought was totally funny and clever but only your mom “liked” it?

These things will totally suck the well-being out of anyone!

They also couldn’t get details on who are in the subjects’ friend networks. Subjects were on average 19 years old and younger folks tend to have 1000s of “friends” they barely know. Ever since my friend network expanded exponentially to include a lot of young 20-something amateur comedians, I’ve felt my well-being plummet. No offense fellow comedians! Most of you probably agree with me.

I bet the happiest friend network ever would be one made up entirely of dogs. I imagine getting messages like “hey bro, wagging my tail at you!!”  or seeing status updates like “What a great WALK. Pee-d on a tree, sniffed a couple of asses! Great day”.

It’s great that science has finally started quantifying the effects of FB. I’ll probably use it even less now. Of course, if this post has been informative for you, please be sure to share it on FB and “like” my comedian fan page: