A study by the social networking giant found that one-on-one communications with your friends (like comments and posts to their walls) can boost happiness, while lurking on the site has the opposite effect.

Kathleen Mulpeter
January 22, 2016

Photo: Getty Images

Is our daily (err—hourly, if we're being honest) Facebook habit good for our health? Or does it trigger feelings of loneliness and inadequacy?

Researchers have been trying to pinpoint the effects that social networks have on our well-being for years, and a new review by Facebook itself hopes to shed more light on the subject.

Published in Communications of the ACM (the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery), the paper analyzes two previous studies to better understand how the Internet impacts our relationships and overall happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors—Moira Burke, PhD, a data scientist at Facebook, and Robert Kraut, PhD, a professor of social psychology at Carnegie Mellon University—conclude that the effect the Internet has on our lives depends on how we use it.

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The first study Burke and Kraut reviewed was done at Carniegie Mellon in the late-90s, in the early days of the web. It found that the more time people spent using the Internet, the more depressed they became. Burke and Kraut attribute this to the fact that back then, people were mainly communicating with strangers online. (This was, after all, the golden age of anonymous chatrooms.) A few years later, when the web became mainstream and more people were online, the Carnegie Mellon researchers replicated their experiment, and discovered that the more people used the Internet to talk to their friends, the less depressed they became.

The second study Bruke and Kraut reviewed was conducted in 2011 on Facebook users. The researchers asked the participants' to complete surveys that measured aspects of their well-being. They also logged the participants' activity on the site—collecting data such as the number of wall posts and comments written and read, likes delivered and received, and photos viewed.

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Like the previous finding, this one indicated that using the Internet to connect with friends may be beneficial. Specifically, one-on-one Facebook interactions (such as posting to friends' walls and commenting on their pics) resulted in increased feelings of happiness. "Satisfaction with life, positive mood, social support, and loneliness all improved 1-3% among people who received approximately 50 or more comments than average from close friends," the authors write in a press release. (Aspects of well-being such as stress, depression, and negative mood did not change with increased activity on the site.)

Although 1 to 3% sounds like a small amount, the researchers say it's significant. The data suggest that a 1 to 3% change is comparable to the effect that illness has on well-being, though in the opposite direction; and roughly one-third the dip in well-being a person experiences from losing a job or getting divorced. In other words, "receiving one-on-one communication from close ties was linked to a boost in well-being that was about the same magnitude as well-being changes caused by major events in people's lives," Burke and Kraut write.

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But while one-on-one communication was associated with a positive spike, more passive use of Facebook seemed to have the opposite effect: "Spending time reading about acquaintances without talking to them was linked to a small but statistically significant increase in negative mood (about 1%)," according to the authors.

If "reading about acquaintances without talking to them" can be interpreted as comparing yourself to your Facebook friends, then the paper's findings appear to align with previous studies which have shown that social networks like Facebook and Twitter can cause feelings of inadequacy. A 2015 study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, for example, found that young women who felt a greater emotional connection to Facebook were more likely to suffer from poor body image. Similarly, other studies have suggested there's a link between Facebook usage and negative feelings of self-worth: One published last year found a connection between using social networks and poor mental health in teens; another study argued that using Facebook can prolong the pain you feel after a breakup; and yet another found that generally using Facebook might contribute to an overall decline in happiness.

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The real takeaway from the new paper? Although "lurking" on the Facebook pages of acquaintances could have a negative effect on your well-being, treating the social network primarily as a place to connect with people you really care about might offer modest mental health benefits.

But no matter how many times you check your feed per day, make sure you don't neglect your "real life" friendships, which offer the most impressive health perks of all: Research has shown that a close circle could help you stay slim, sleep betterpreserve your memory, even live longer. It's possible that the 1 to 3% boost in well-being that the Facebook paper noted had less to do with the social networking giant than the therapeutic effects of good pals.

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