Just over half of the world’s population of 7.5 billion or so have internet access. More than half of those with internet access are Facebook users—around 2 billion people.
Facebook, and social media generally, have been touted as being, well, social, connecting users with their friends and with other users with whom they might find common interests. But the social aspect of social media may not be working out for many users.
A recent study by four psychology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged the correlation between social media use and a lower sense of well-being among users but wanted to look deeper by designing an experimental study to investigate whether social media use actually caused people to feel worse.
Just a word here about terminology. A correlation study typically looks to see if two seemingly disparate conditions show up at that same time. Are people who use social media more depressed, for example. An experimental study compares a control group to a group that has been made to change its behavior. The working hypothesis in the Penn experimental study was that more social media usage caused a negative feeling of well-being.
The study included 143 Penn undergraduates who were self-reported users of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. All were monitored for one week to set a baseline of well-being measured on seven scales: social support; fear of missing out; loneliness; anxiety; depression; self-esteem; and autonomy and self-acceptance. Some of the students (the experimental group) were then told to limit their use of the three social media apps to just 10 minutes a day per app for three weeks while the others (the control group) were told to continue as they had in the past.
The researchers found that limiting social media usage to 10 minutes a day for each of the 3 apps “had a significant impact on well-being.” Individuals in the experimental group were less lonely and less depressed.
One subject told the researchers, “Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks. I feel overall that social media is less important and I value it less than I did prior to the study.”
The researchers note that it is “ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with others, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed.”