Facebook admits social media is bad for you

Thumbs down: The average internet user spends 135 minutes per day on social media.

Is the answer to social media’s problems… more social media? Facebook has admitted that “passively” using its website may not be good for you. Its answer? Just use it a little differently.

“Do people connect in meaningful ways online? Or are they simply consuming trivial updates… at the expense of time with loved ones?”

These questions, in themselves, are not very surprising. But now a blog post considering the problems with Facebook has made headlines around the world. Why? It was published by Facebook itself.

It is the first time the company has publicly acknowledged that its product might be bad for people.

In the post, two Facebook researchers considered the evidence. On the one hand, Facebook users who read the site more often also report worse mental health, and it has been linked with an “increase in teen depression”. Earlier this year, one researcher said technology in general has pushed young people to the “brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”.

The reasons for this are unclear, but many blame social media for encouraging people to compare themselves to a false image of others’ lives. Technology also stands accused of making people feel “alone together” by distracting them from real-life relationships.

However, Facebook argues that this is not the whole picture. The worst effects occur when people use the site “passively”, it says. A group of students assigned to read Facebook for ten minutes ended up feeling worse by the end of the day. But a group who were told to talk to people fared much better.

“It really comes down to how you use the technology,” Facebook insisted. Chatting to friends, or even looking back at your own posts, can be good for you.

The blog post came a few days after a former Facebook executive accused the site of “ripping apart” society. It is also the end of a long year in which Facebook had to reckon with the spread of fake news, interference from Russia, and a series of violent incidents that were broadcast on the site.

In the wake of this, Mark Zuckerberg has said that his new focus is on bringing the world “closer together” and that protecting people “is more important than maximising our profits”.

Can using Facebook really make you happier?

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Yes, say some. It may sound silly to advise people who are depressed by social media to use it more often. But there are ways in which it can improve your mood. Instead of enviously stalking a frenemy, try reaching out to someone you love or revisiting some happy memories. In the end, it is all about your own attitude.

Rubbish, argue others. Of course Facebook would say that; a company would never advise its customers to stop using its product. But social media is designed to make you addicted to it; it cannot be its own cure. If technology makes you feel low, there is only one solution: log off, go outside, and reconnect with the real world.

You Decide

  1. Does looking at social media generally make you feel better or worse?
  2. Do you trust Facebook to put making the world a better place above its own profits?

Activities

  1. Create a poster which advises people on how social media can have an impact on their mental health.
  2. In groups, design a new social network which is based around improving people’s wellbeing. What kind of online behaviour does it encourage, and what does it avoid?

Some People Say...

“What makes social media work is actually having something to say.”

Steven Levitt

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Facebook has 2.07 billion active monthly users — over a quarter of the world’s population. Earlier this month it announced that it will be investing $1 million into researching the effects of social media on young people. On Friday, it introduced new features to help improve its users’ wellbeing, including “Snooze” and “Take a Break”. These allow you to remove certain people’s content from your newsfeed.
What do we not know?
How far Facebook can really influence your mental health. Although it will certainly have some effect on your wellbeing, it is worth noting that serious mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are complex, and cannot be caused by a single factor alone. We also do not know whether the changes Facebook has announced will really improve things.

Word Watch

More often
According to a study by University of California San Diego and Yale, those who liked twice as many posts, or clicked on four times as many links as the average user, also had worse mental health than average.
One researcher
Psychologist Jean M. Twenge. Read more under Become An Expert.
Alone together
In 2012 the psychologist Sherry Turkle argued that the ever-present nature of mobile phones and social media means that people “end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other”.
Your own
According to a study at Cornell, Facebook users look at their own profile to satisfy their “need for self-worth and self-integrity”.
Fake news
After the 2016 election, BuzzFeed News found that the top 20 hoax news stories spread further on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from mainstream news sites.
Russia
Earlier this year, Facebook said that adverts bought by Russia to influence the US election were seen by 126 million Americans.
Violent incidents
For example, in April a man in Thailand killed his daughter, and then himself, on Facebook Live.

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