Facebook admits that social media can be bad for you

Here’s the experts’ take on how miserable or gleeful social media can make you:

  1. If you passively consume content like a couch potato watching TV, you’ll feel bad.
  2. If you actively engage with friends, relatives, classmates and colleagues, you’ll feel good.
  3. If you walk away from social media entirely… you’re just an unfathomable question mark of a person and don’t factor into Facebook’s recent soul-searching whatsoever.

Said soul-searching happened on Friday, when Facebook researchers posted what they deemed “hard questions” about whether or not social media is bad for us. Given that their hard questions leave out the “hey, how about if I just dump Facebook entirely?” option, those questions are, really, about as hard as tapioca pudding.

Here’s the spoiler: in the post, Facebook publicly recognized some of its platform’s detrimental effects but suggested the cure is to engage with the platform more: more messages, more comments and more posts.

A study we conducted with Robert Kraut at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who sent or received more messages, comments and Timeline posts reported improvements in social support, depression and loneliness. The positive effects were even stronger when people talked with their close friends online. Simply broadcasting status updates wasn’t enough; people had to interact one-on-one with others in their network.

David Ginsberg, Facebook director of research, and Moira Burke, a Facebook research scientist, noted that in one experiment at Cornell University, when comparing stressed-out college students, those who scrolled through their own Facebook profile for 5 minutes experienced more boosts in self-affirmation than those who scrolled through strangers’ posts.

From the Facebook researchers’ post:

The researchers believe self-affirmation comes from reminiscing on past meaningful interactions – seeing photos they had been tagged in and comments their friends had left – as well as reflecting on one’s own past posts, where a person chooses how to present themselves to the world.

And from that study:

…users gravitate toward their online profiles after receiving a blow to the ego, in an unconscious effort to repair their perceptions of self-worth.

That’s the bright side of the coin. On the darker side is social media-enabled trolling that can lead to problems as severe as suicide.

One of too many examples was that of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who leapt to her death from an abandoned cement factory silo in 2013. One month after her suicide, the offline and online bullying that tormented Rebecca for over a year was still a sickening miasma thriving in venues such as Facebook, with two girls being arrested after one allegedly bragged on Facebook about cyber bullying the victim.

There have been many studies that have looked at this dark side of Facebook. Five themes emerged from one such: managing inappropriate or annoying content, being tethered to Facebook, perceived lack of privacy and control, social comparison and jealousy, and relationship tension.

Of course, Facebook is well aware that its platform can be used both for cyber bullying and to post cries for help. In March, it announced that it planned to update its algorithms to keep an ear out for people who might be in danger of suicide, by looking out for key phrases and then referring the matter to human Facebook staff so they might ask whether the writer is OK.

The is-social-media-good-or-bad post from last Friday comes days after a former Facebook executive gave a scathing speech about the corporation. Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth, said that he regrets his part in building tools that destroy “the social fabric of how society works.”

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.

…a proclamation that followed an admission last month, from Facebook ex-president Sean Parker, that Facebook creators were from the start well aware that they were exploiting a “vulnerability in human psychology” to get people addicted to the “little dopamine hit” when someone likes or comments on your page.

It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… The inventors, creators – it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.

Other ex-Facebookers who’ve lately stepped back to question the repercussions of what they’ve created include Facebook “like” button co-creator Justin Rosenstein and former Facebook product manager Leah Pearlman, who have both implemented measures to curb their social media dependence.

It’s not just Facebook; in the midst of the current analysis of fake news, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, for one, has also been doing some introspection.

Friday’s post doesn’t ignore the research published on the negative effects of social media, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it concludes that the good results/bad results boil down to how you use social media.

But what of the non-users? Such research does exist, of course.

A recent study out of Harvard Business Review found that while face-to-face, real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. In fact, researchers concluded, it might even affect your physical health, never mind your mental well-being:

These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

Don’t like that conclusion? No worries: another study from a year ago found that Facebook users tend to have higher levels of subjective happiness, life satisfaction and social support compared with non-users.

Facebook used its soul-searching post to announce some changes to its platform designed to help us do more of the things that make us happy, and to shield us from the things that don’t.

There’s no need to wait for Facebook to take the lead though. You probably started playing the social media game because it did something fun or useful to you. If it’s no longer doing that for you then maybe it’s time to ask some questions about which platforms and interactions are working for you, and which aren’t, and adjust accordingly.

And of course there’s always the option-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. As Naked Security’s Mark Stockley points out, if you walk away from Facebook, or social media “you might be missing out on something that’s potentially beneficial but you’re not missing out on something that homo sapiens hasn’t successfully gone without for 150,000 years or so.”