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.
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.