Last March I deleted my Facebook account and never looked back. In the year since I left Facebook (and every other social media platform), I’ve experienced a significant improvement in my quality of life—I spend more time on my hobbies, feel less anxious and angry from constant exposure to the news cycle, have a noticeably longer attention span, and feel more present in the moment when I’m hanging out with friends and family.
Everyone is different, of course, and it would be easy to dismiss my positive subjective experience after leaving Facebook as an anomaly or rationalization. According to a massive new study conducted by researchers at Stanford and New York University, I am far from alone.The randomized study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, measured the wellbeing of hundreds of individuals for a month after they left Facebook and found that the experience improved their subjective wellbeing, increased the amount of time they spent doing offline activities, and led to a significant reduction of Facebook use after the study was over.“I would have expected more substitution from Facebook to other digital things—Twitter, Snapchat, online browsing,” Matthew Gentzkow, an economist at Stanford and co-author of the study, told the New York Times. “That didn’t happen, and for me at least, it was a surprise.”
It wasn’t all good news, however. The reduction of Facebook use also led to more time watching TV alone and also resulted in people being less factually informed about political news. The caveat to the last item, however, is that it also led to less polarized political opinions in the subjects.The researchers conducted the study on 2,844 Facebook users in the run up to the 2018 midterms in November. The participants, who were recruited using Facebook ads, were asked how much money they would be willing to accept to leave Facebook for four weeks, which is another way of asking how much they valued a month of access to Facebook. Half of the participants who said they would leave Facebook for less than $100 were then randomly selected to join the month-long study.
Participants in the study deactivated their Facebook pages for the entire month and the researchers checked that they upheld this commitment by constantly pinging the URLs of their Facebook profiles to make sure they were still deactivated.Based on follow-up surveys given to participants during their month-long abstinence from Facebook and in the month after they returned, the researchers found that leaving the social media platform had both strong positive and negative effects.“Our participants’ answers in…follow-up interviews make clear the diverse ways in which Facebook can improve people’s lives, whether as a source of entertainment, a means to organize a charity or an activist group, or a vital social lifeline for those who are otherwise isolated,” the researchers noted in their report.Furthermore, the researchers argued that Facebook is clearly valuable based on the average amount of time people spend on it per day (about 60 minutes) and the amount of people who valued four weeks of access at $100 or more. “Any discussion of social media’s downsides should not obscure the basic fact that it fulfills deep and widespread needs,” the researchrs wrote.
On the other hand, the researchers say that their “results also make clear that the downsides are real.” For example, the fact that people use Facebook substantially less after taking a break suggests that “forces such as addiction and projection bias may cause people to use Facebook more than they otherwise would.” Moreover, although leaving Facebook causes people to be less informed, it also makes them less politically polarized.Overall, the researchers suggest that the negative effects of Facebook are “large enough to be real concerns, but also smaller in many cases than what one might have expected given prior research and popular discussion.”The researchers note that other innovations, from novels to television to nuclear energy, have had a similar trajectory of overblown optimism about their potential to a backlash of alarm about their harm. In each case, these innovations are still with us, but the ways we use them and think about them have changed drastically over the years, in large part due to empirical research like this study.