10 Feb 2019

Leaving Facebook

From Sunday Morning, 11:06 am on 10 February 2019

When a group of volunteers left Facebook for a month they were less opinionated, less polarised and less anxious - but only slight so a new study has found.

Stanford and NYU researchers have researched the unthinkable: leaving Facebook.

As part of the study 2300 were persuaded to quit for a month. The study's called The Welfare Effects of Social Media and one of its authors Sarah Eichmeyer joined Jim Mora to discuss the project.

Facebook logo

Facebook logo Photo: Pixaby

“With my research team we studied how getting off Facebook affects people’s well-being and how engaged they are with the news and what their political opinions are,” Eichmeyer says.

Eichmeyer says people on Facebook consume more news on average than people who are off it, which is a plus, but people off Facebook report being happier and less depressed and anxious. However, those effects are relatively small, she says.

Another finding was that people who are off Facebook are less polarised in their opinions about the news.

“This is one of the most fascinating findings of our study. The reason that we find these effects, even over this one-month period of being off Facebook, is we ask about knowledge regarding relatively recent news events – events that happened while they were off Facebook – the effects can kick in immediately.

“For polarisation measures, we asked people about their opinions on recent political events, for example, the US Supreme Court Judge nomination and issues related to the #MeToo debate. Those are issues where recent news events can really affect people’s opinions.”

She says people who were off the social media platform were less likely to have a strong opinion on the matter than those that were.

On average people in the study spent around an hour a day on Facebook while ten percent reported spending more than three hours a day on Facebook. She says that when they returned to the platform, that amount decreased.

“My feeling is people who had to deactivate for a month became more self-aware about the sheer amount of time they were previously spending on Facebook and I think people became more cognisant of spending their time on Facebook better after our study. This is reflected in the fact that most people, after the month deactivation, reactivated their account. They still wanted to be on Facebook, but they ended up using Facebook less.”

People were paid to take part in the study and were allowed to re-join Facebook at any time, but only 2 percent did. Some people decided to not go back on at all at the study’s conclusion.

The study differed from previous ones by separating causation from correlation. Where, previously, it was difficult to tell if people on Facebook were more anxious and stressed because of it, or if they were using it because they were stressed and anxious.

By focusing on Facebook – and its deactivation – her group was able to prove that using Facebook did slightly increase levels of unhappiness.  

“Social media really, fundamentally, changed how many of us communicate, spend our time, and get the news. Our study is a reminder that such impactful technologies like social media will never be just good or just bad for society. We need to understand the nuances better. I think our paper is a step in that direction.”

So should we all delete Facebook? Eichmeyer says it depends on the person, but a bit of experimenting won’t hurt.

“You could try just not using it for a week, or using it less, and see how that feels.”