New research out of Stanford and New York University took a look at what happens when people step back from Facebook for a month.
Through Facebook, the research team recruited 2,488 people who averaged an hour of Facebook use each day. After assessing their “willingness to accept” the idea of deactivating their account for a month, the study assigned eligible participants to an experimental category that would deactivate their accounts or a control group that would not.
Over the course of the month-long experiment, researchers monitored compliance by checking participants’ profiles. The participants self-reported a rotating set of well being measures in real time, including happiness, what emotion a participant felt over the last 10 minutes and a measure of loneliness.
As the researchers report, leaving Facebook correlated with improvements on well being measures. They found that the group tasked with quitting Facebook ended up spending less time on other social networks too, instead spending more time to offline activities like spending time with friends and family (good) and watching television (maybe not so good). Overall the group reported that it spent less time consuming news in general.
The group that Facebook also reported less time spent on the social network after the study-imposed hiatus was up, suggesting that the break might have given them new insight into their own habits.
“Reduced post-experiment use aligns with our finding that deactivation improved subjective well-being, and it is also consistent with the hypotheses that Facebook is habit forming… or that people learned that they enjoy life without Facebook more than they had anticipated,” the paper’s authors wrote.
There are a few things to be aware of with the research. The paper notes that subjects were told they would “keep [their] access to Facebook Messenger.” Though the potential impact of letting participants remain on Messenger isn’t mentioned again, it sounds like they were still freely using one of the platform’s main functions though perhaps one with fewer potential negative effects on mood and behavior.
Unlike some recent research, this study was conducted by economics researchers. That’s not unusual for social psych-esque stuff like this but does inform aspects of the method, measured used and perspective.
Most important for a bit more context, the research was conducted in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That fact that is likely to have informed participants’ attitudes around social media, both before and after the election.
While the participants reported that they were less informed about current events, they also showed evidence of being less politically polarized, “consistent with the concern that social media have played some role in the recent rise of polarization in the US.”
In an era of ubiquitous threats to quit the world’s biggest social network, the fact remains that we mostly have no idea what our online habits are doing to our brains and behavior. Given that, we also don’t know what happens when we step back from social media environments like Facebook and give our brains a reprieve. With its robust sample size and fairly thorough methodology, this study provides us a useful glimpse into those effects. For more insight into the research, you can read the full paper here.