If Facebook and I had a relationship status last year, it would have been, “It’s complicated.” The social media platform, with its confetti of “like,” “love,” and “wow” buttons and arcadelike red notifications, put me through a roller coaster of emotions every day — I’d go from feeling loved and admired to fighting off a clawing sense of jealousy or self-reproach. But severing ties was hard. The first time I tried to break up with Facebook, I asked my brother to change my password. That hiatus lasted a month before I begged him to let me back on. The next time, I tried deactivating my account for seven days. I lasted three.
It’s not what I would have called a healthy relationship. But I’m not the only one who has felt like Facebook’s siren call may be taking a toll on her life: In the last few years, researchers have come up with a growing pile of evidence to suggest that Facebook use may be linked to unhappiness. In the most recent study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Epidemiology, researchers analyzed Facebook activity from more than 5,000 people who had responded to the Gallup Panel Social Network Study survey in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The study authors then compared respondents’ accounts of their social media use with each person’s self-reported level of well-being. The result: Facebook use was significantly correlated with declines in overall well-being over the years, as well as the more specific categories of physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
While this isn’t the first study to suggest that Facebook may be making us unhappier, it is one of the largest studies yet to reach that conclusion, and one of the first to look at the effects of Facebook use over several years. “It’s very consistent with the emerging body of evidence,” says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “And it’s another piece of a very complicated puzzle.”
In 2013, Kross published a widely cited paper that looked at how Facebook use affects the well-being of young adults, using a novel method in which researchers texted participants regularly to find out how they were feeling, how much they had recently used Facebook, and how much they had interacted with people in person since the last text. The hope was that collecting data in real time would minimize inaccuracies in how people remembered their mood and well-being after the fact, Kross explains. His study, while small (only 82 participants), found that the more people used Facebook over a period of time, the worse they felt during their the next check-in with the researchers. In addition, the more frequently the subjects used Facebook over the course of two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time.
Kross’s study was more proof of what many social scientists were already beginning to suspect: The internet, for all the ways it was making our lives easier and more connected, might also be taking a negative toll on our emotional health. In 1998, Robert Kraut, a psychologist who studies human and computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, helped kick off this line of research with a study that examined the social and psychological impact of the internet on 169 people during their first couple of years online. The study found that more time spent on the internet was associated with a decrease in communication with people in real life, fewer friends in real-life networks, and increases in depression and loneliness.
Since then, researchers have found similar trends in people who use Facebook in particular. In 2015, a team of Danish researchers asked participants in a study of 1,095 people to stop using Facebook for an entire week; those who did experienced a significant increase in concentration, happiness, and satisfaction with their social lives. Along the same lines, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh surveyed 1,787 young adults in the United States in 2016 and found that social media use in young adults was strongly correlated with depression. Compared with those who checked social media networks the least frequently, more active social-media users in the study were 2.7 times more likely to have depression, even when controlling for other factors that might contribute to depression risk, including living situation, household income, and education level.
Still, it’s premature to draw any conclusions. Many researchers are unsure whether the results they’re seeing can be explained by the fact that depressed and lonely people simply tend to use Facebook more — after all, correlation doesn’t equal causation. And although some studies, like Kross’s, seem to address this issue by documenting how individuals’ moods change after using Facebook, they are still too small to be conclusive.
To make matters even more complicated, there are just as many studies that suggest that Facebook may be good for well-being. In 2007, researchers from Michigan State University found that Facebook use increased students’ “social capital,” a term developed by sociologists in the 1970s to refer to the benefits a person gains from their social network, like information, support, and connections (research shows that people with more social capital tend to have better self-esteem and more satisfaction with life). Two years later, researchers from the University of Texas corroborated those findings when they reported that Facebook didn’t just increase students’ life satisfaction and trust — it was also linked to higher rates of civic engagement and political participation within communities.
In 2013, meanwhile, researchers tackled the claim that socializing on Facebook affects real-life relationships. Two small studies found that the quality and number of connections in a person’s Facebook network had little correlation with the quality and number of connections in that person’s real-life networks. They also found that feeling connected to friends on Facebook was associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. Those findings were substantiated in 2014, when researchers at Michigan State asked 339 adults how they felt immediately after a supportive interaction on a social network, and found that supportive interactions increased feelings of social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction.
Other research has shown that Facebook can also foster nostalgia, an emotion that has been linked to increased feelings of belonging and acceptance. In 2013, researchers from the U.K. reported that reminiscing by looking back on Facebook posts and photos provided a self-soothing effect, especially for people who reported a history of mental-health issues.
So, given all that conflicting evidence, can we say whether Facebook is good or bad for us? A closer look at the research suggests that the question itself is too broad — that the answer depends more on how people use these social networks than whether they use them at all. Over the years, researchers have identified a variety of factors — how well you know your online “friends,” how you present yourself on Facebook, whether you use Facebook actively or browse it passively — that can affect how the website influences your mood.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook — which puts each person’s number of friends, “likes,” and enhanced photos on display — invites social comparison. In a small study published in 2014, researchers found that participants who used Facebook more often were more likely to compare themselves to people who seemed “better” than they were. On the other hand, this phenomenon may depend on the type of friends you have in your network: Another study, this one from 2012, found that the more “friends” a person had in their Facebook network that they didn’t know personally, the more likely they were to believe that their friends were happier and leading better lives. This tendency reflects a phenomenon called “correspondence bias,” in which we draw broad assumptions about other people’s lives and personalities based on the limited information we have about their actions and words — or, in Facebook-land, their status updates and photos. We’re particularly prone to correspondence bias for people we don’t know well.
Interestingly enough, those same friends who are painting a rosy picture of their lives on Facebook may be less happy than the friends who write about the times they’re feeling down. Researchers from Kent State University found that the people who presented themselves more honestly online —who felt free to share negative emotions and bad things that happened to them — were more likely to experience a boost in well-being and to feel like they had support from their Facebook friends.
Finally, several studies have suggested that the way people engage with their Facebook feeds may be one of the most important factors. Researchers from Michigan State University asked students to keep a diary of their social media use and how supported they felt by their friends. Those who were more active on Facebook (giving advice, showing empathy, or inviting people to a new group) showed significant increases in well-being and feelings of social support compared to more passive users. On the other end of the spectrum, when Kross and his colleagues asked 80 college students to use Facebook actively or passively for ten minutes in a lab-controlled environment, they found that those who simply scrolled through, rather than sharing or doing anything, reported feeling significantly worse at the end of the day. The same was true for students who used Facebook in their day-to-day lives. However, Kross explains that while there’s robust evidence to suggest that passive Facebook use negatively impacts people, the jury’s still out on the effects of active use: “On the whole, the results haven’t been consistent and we need more research in the area,” he says.
While studying Facebook use may feel as trivial as going on Facebook itself, Kross says that it’s important for parents, educators, and consumers to understand how this form of communication affects the way we relate to one another. “We’d been hugging [and] kissing people for hundreds and thousands of years, and all of sudden we had this new technology that changed the way we were interacting with each other,” he says. “Some people spend more time online now than they do offline. Does this have any implications for how people navigate their lives and how happy they are?”
Since the last time I tried to quit Facebook, my own relationship with the site has actually improved, for many of the reasons the researchers discovered above: When I do log on, I interact with friends instead of passively scrolling through my feed to kill time, and I try to be a lot more honest about my life in my posts. Above all, I’ve stopped chastising myself for checking Facebook — it’s something researchers haven’t yet explored, but it was making me feel even worse about myself for “wasting time.” While I still wouldn’t venture to claim that I “love” the social media platform, at least I feel okay now about giving it a thumbs-up “like.”