Is It Time To Give Up Facebook?

We all know that the mainstream media loves a good, link-baiting headline, and that they are prone to simplification and exaggeration when it comes to science discoveries. So whenever I see the news feeds light up with the sensational results of a new study, especially when it involves a company that news outlets love to pile onto, I always check the source before believing the hype.

Yesterday, the headlines involved Facebook, a popular news punching bag, and the headlines announced “Facebook use ‘makes people feel worse about themselves’,”Feeling Sad? Study Says Facebook Is To Blame,” and “The More You Use Facebook, the More Miserable You Get, Study Says.” Ironically, the first report I saw on the study was in a link shared on my Facebook page. I wasn’t particularly unhappy at the time, but who could resist a headline like that?

In this case, the headlines are being drawn from a study from the open-source online journal PLoS ONE, “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” by Kross et al. PLoS ONE is a generalist peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science with an interesting distribution method. In short, researchers pay PLoS ONE a fee of $1350 when they wish to publish; while the papers still go through a form of peer review — authors are encouraged to recommend peer reviewers when they submit — the fact remains that this fee is the only way to initiate consideration for publication, which has rankled some in the science community.

The article itself does not raise any immediate red flags. it reports on a two-week study conducted with a group of 17-21 year olds (probably mostly college students, as they were recruited in and around Ann Arbor, MI), who agreed to be texted 5 times a day with questions about their Facebook usage and general emotional state. Their results did, indeed, discover that the more participants used Facebook over the course of a day, the worse their reported feelings were later that same day.

Chart provided by the original article, showing correlation between usage and unhappiness. .

Chart provided by the original article, showing correlation between usage and unhappiness. .

If these results bear out, what does it mean? Is it time for us all to give up on Facebook, in order to be happier?

Not exactly; not yet. Even though this is an interesting finding, it’s also a preliminary finding. The article itself even provides, as all good journal articles do, suggestions for further study that might better help us understand these results (or counter them entirely).

Also, the mass media articles I’ve read all seem to avoid one important caveat, a caveat that the authors themselves point out: this effect is small, and even if further study bears it out to be real, it’s only going to be one of numerous factors that go into making one unhappy. If you’re sad, you were probably already sad before using Faceboon and deleting the Facebook app off of your iPhone isn’t going to make you suddenly happy again.

There’s also the problem of correlation vs. causation to consider.  Is Facebook use causing unhappiness? Or does Facebook use simply correlate to some other factors that contribute to unhappiness? The study did ask participants to rate their “worry” and “loneliness” and found no correlation, but there are a multitude of things that make someone unhappy besides worry and loneliness. For example, maybe people who use Facebook more frequently are introverted and therefore have smaller, less active social circles and fewer friends to interact with face to face; or maybe they are people who have body image issues and thus prefer to hide behind a screen; or maybe they were people doing worse in school; or maybe they are people who spend more hours in dead-end jobs. I’m not saying that any of these is the explanation, just that each one could be, as could an equal number of other possibilities.

This is an interesting report and the results are worth further study. But as always, skeptical minds should read any news media headlines about studies like this with a hefty pinch of salt … and resist that urge to Share the story with their online friends.


About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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8 Responses to Is It Time To Give Up Facebook?

  1. ahuszagh says:

    I would like to point out that the charges from PLOS ONE are fairly low for open source journals, and it is not considered to be a predatory publisher. Far from it. The question of whether paying for catalogues or for publishing is an important one, but it does not mean PLOS ONE is considered a poor journal. It has a fairly high impact factor, and one should not question the results solely on the basis of being published in PLOS ONE.

    • Alison Edwards says:

      I agree, and I was not questioning the results for that reason. I think the status of open source journals is such, however, that it was worth pointing it out so that the audience could take the fact into consideration. I think a lot of regular folks aren’t even aware that such journals exist, or that they don’t work exactly like traditionally published journals.

      • Stephen Propatier says:

        Yet I see consistent pattern in PLOS of exceptionally poor structural studies. Especially with research that has headline grabbing results. My opinion they like to publish marginal studies to grab headlines a little more often than makes me comfortable.

        • ahuszagh says:

          All I’m going to say is it is a fairly good model for open source, regardless of your opinions of open source journals. I do feel that peer-review needs to be restructured in all open-source journals, which is difficult with an open-source journal due to the variable number of submissions. Maybe limiting the number of overall publications per year may lead to higher quality publications with multiple journals to ensure a high quality editorial board? I wonder if open-source journals will stay?

          • Alison Edwards says:

            I could see those being meaningful changes to the open-source model. One of the big criticisms you hear leveled against them is that they’ll publish everything they can because that’s what makes them money (and funds their publication). Perhaps there’s a balance between quantity and quality to be struck that isn’t quite there yet …

  2. Reg. says:

    I’ve said ” I divorce thee,” to Facebook more often than the regulation three times and it keeps stalking me. I dare not show interest by going go back to do it all over again. Where is the simple unsubscribe button? Clearly it is not in a stalker’s interests to provide such a simple avenue of escape for his victims.

    Facebook is only another of the “pixie messaging” breed which encourages shallow thinking in lazy readers..

    I’m surprised your article does not include a reference to Emotional Intelligence Alison whereby the individual can apparently be passionately involved at one extreme, while simultaneously retaining absolute control of his interpersonal relationships at the other extreme. Either that or of a standard battle-ship grey disposition which encourages quiescence.

    I bet there was an accountant at the heart of EI.

  3. Ian says:

    Ever heard of Chinese water torture? The victum supposidly end up submitting because of waiting for the next drip of a predictable (it will come) but at a generally unknowable (esp if disorentaited) time.

    How would you like to be annoyed by 5 TXT messages per day, you know you are going to get them at an average inter message interval of a few minutes less than 3 hours. However, for 20% of the waits the delay will be = 4hr 21mins, with a maximum wait of just over 5hr 30mins. Myself I would be screeming mad at that point and liable to answer negatively and probably falsely.

    The study asked respondents how they felt and had they used FB at 5 times per day in 5 168 minure windows, where the study said the time within each window was (assumed uniformly) random. This gives expected wait times of –

    Ct % wait
    1 2 34
    6 10 75
    11 20 106
    28 50 168
    45 80 230
    50 90 261
    55 98 302
    56 100 336

    Here Ct is the number of intervals in the 14 day study period with a given wait, % is that number as a percentage and wait is the wait time in minutes between TXT messages asking respondent how they feel.

    I’m skeptital.

  4. Sean Crossey says:

    I think it is down to the individual. FB reflects your life back at you. If you are unpopular or have problems it magnifies them.

    I’m not a socialite. I spend my free time reading, not showing off. Nor am I particularly interested in what most people are doing all the time so I’ve found that FB is not for me.

    On the other hand I have friends who love sharing on FB and really get something out of it so I can’t say it’s worthless for everybody.

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