Facebook: Essential to our mental wellbeing?

The way the general populace feels about Facebook can, I imagine, be aptly summed up by a recent article in The Onion, entitled, “New Poll Finds Public Becoming More Skeptical of Profit-Driven Corporate Data Mine Powered By Human Misery”. This is is no small part influenced by recent news detailing the wealth of personal information stored by the mother of all social networks.

Facebook: Essential to our mental wellbeing?

But a recent study has found that Facebook may not be so pernicious after all. A team at the University of Queensland gleaned the alarming conclusion that extended periods of time away from Facebook may actually cause a decline in life satisfaction, with the inverse being true for regular users. The study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, employed a sample of 138 participants, whose overall satisfaction with life was recorded to have depleted when taking a leave of absence from Facebook.

Participants were made up of regular Facebook users aged 18-40 (51 men and 87 women), with half the group taking a five-day break from the social networking site, and the other continuing usage as normal. Before and after the experiment took place, saliva tests were taken to monitor cortisol levels. Records were also made of participants’ perceived levels of stress and wellbeing.

The conclusions were surprising, if nuanced: rather than liberate users from Blakean “mind-forged manacles”, extended periods away from Facebook were indeed found to reduce overall life satisfaction levels, albeit with the bonus of also lowering cortisol (aka “the stress hormone”) levels. Talk about Stockholm Syndrome…

Mixed messages

Before you start scheduling Facebook sessions alongside your meditation classes, it’s worth noting some sizeable caveats. For example, the study was a small one – 138 participants isn’t the most robust sample size in the world – and set over a short-time period. What’s more, there have been numerous studies that counteract the findings of Queensland University’s latest.

Not least of all is this 2013 paper, which found that Facebook use predicts a long-term decline in the subjective wellbeing of young adults. “On the surface,” it asserts, “Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection.” The reality is starkly different: “Rather than enhancing wellbeing […] these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Three years later, in 2016, a study published by the US’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that, after a week without Facebook, not only did life satisfaction among participants increase but emotions actively became more positive. The paper’s dual findings were further validated by the relatively large sample size: the study used a not-so-negligible 1,095 participants.

The University of Queensland’s most recent study jars with these findings. “Those in the No Facebook condition experienced lower levels of cortisol and life satisfaction,” the paper summarised. Meanwhile, those whose Facebook usage continued as normal “reported an increase of their wellbeing.” The authors posit that this may have to do with the “many benefits” that Facebook provides “as an essential social tool for millions of users”; without it, people may feel “cut off” from an intangible social orbit that’s become increasingly ingrained in our daily lives. That’s FOMO, to you and I.

We’re taking the findings with a pinch of salt, and certainly aren’t upping our daily dosage of social media usage accordingly. Not with reams and reams of often highly sensitive – not to mention mortifying – personal data being fed right into Zuckerberg’s mitts. Fool me once, etc etc.

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