by Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis, Harvard Business Review, 4/19/17.
Prior research has shown that the use of social media may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increase sedentary behavior by encouraging more screen time, lead to internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavorable social comparison. Self-comparison can be a strong influence on human behavior, and because people tend to display the most positive aspects of their lives on social media, it is possible for an individual to believe that their own life compares negatively to what they see presented by others. But some skeptics have wondered if perhaps people with lower well-being are more likely to use social media, rather than social media causing lower well-being. Moreover, other studies have found that social media use has a positive impact on well-being through increased social support and reinforcement of real world relationships.
We wanted to get a clearer picture of the relationship between social media use and well-being. In our study, we used three waves of data from 5,208 adults from a national longitudinal panel maintained by the Gallup organization, coupled with several different measures of Facebook usage, to see how well-being changed over time in association with Facebook use. Our measures of well-being included life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index (BMI). Our measures of Facebook use included liking others’ posts, creating one’s own posts, and clicking on links. We also had measures of respondents’ real-world social networks. In each wave, respondents were asked to name up to four friends with whom they discuss important matters and up to four friends with whom they spend their free time, so that each participant could name up to a total of eight unique individuals.
Our approach had three strengths that set it apart from most of the previous work on the topic. First, we had three waves of data for many of our respondents over a period of two years. This allowed us to track how changes in social media use were associated with changes in well-being. Most studies done to date only use one period of data, limiting interpretations of conclusions to simple associations. Second, we had objective measures of Facebook use, pulled directly from participants’ Facebook accounts, rather than measures based on a person’s self-report. Third, in addition to the Facebook data, we had information regarding the respondents’ real-world social networks, which would allow us to directly compare the two influences (face-to-face networks and online interactions). Of course, our study has limitations too, including that we could not be certain about how fully representative it was because not everyone in the Gallup sample allowed us access to their Facebook data.
Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.