Facebook is like cigarettes

Last week I argued that many of the jobs we do today are socially useless . While some readers agreed with me, it seems I may have hit a nerve with the younger generation, some of which complained to me that social media and modern technology are socially useful inventions. And my reaction to that is that some of these inventions may indeed be useful, but others may be as socially useful as the invention of cigarettes. And a recent study on the usage of Facebook shows what I mean.

Hunt Allcott and his colleagues from Stanford University and New York University managed to recruit c. 2,700 Americans in late 2018 and asked a random sample of them to deactivate Facebook for several weeks in the runup and immediate aftermath of the Midterm Elections on 7 November 2018. They then measured the changes in behaviour of the participants who deactivated Facebook and compared it to the participants who did not. The researchers focused on three important areas: subjective wellbeing, political engagement and how participants used their time after they deactivated Facebook.

The political dimension is not my focus today, but I want to mention that participants who deactivated Facebook became less knowledgeable about the current political news but also less polarized in their views. Both Republican and Democratic voters moved their opinions more to the centre of the political spectrum and the effect of “de-polarisation” in their political views was almost half of the increase in political polarisation observed in American politics between 1996 and 2016. Thus, the study indicates once more that Facebook may play a role in the increasing polarisation of the political landscape.

However, what interests me more is how people who deactivated Facebook use their "free" time and how they feel after deactivating Facebook. On average, the people participating in the study spent one hour per day on Facebook beforehand. After deactivating it, the time gained was used by all kinds of activities ranging from watching TV to meeting friends and family in person. One of the biggest increases in time spent was to go out for dinner with friends, apparently. And we know from previous studies that spending time with family and friends is the best way to improve wellbeing.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the increase in life satisfaction and happiness of those people who deactivated Facebook was significant (see our chart below). Similarly, people felt less depressed and less anxious. Feelings of loneliness and boredom also declined but these effects were not statistically significant.

In other words: Facebook does reduce subjective wellbeing and getting off Facebook has a positive effect on wellbeing and happiness, which in turn has long-term health benefits. As one participant wrote:

“I was way less stressed. I wasn't attached to my phone as much as I was before. And I found I didn't really care so much about things that were happening [online] because I was more focused on my own life... I felt more content. I think I was in a better mood generally. I thought I would miss seeing everyone's day-to-day activities... I really didn't miss it at all.”

Yet, the authors of the study also concluded that Facebook provides significant benefits to consumers. They conclude that this is the case because they asked the participants in their study to value the use of Facebook in monetary terms. They asked how much they would be willing to pay to re-activate Facebook and the answer was an astonishing $100 for four weeks of access to Facebook. And what’s more, this number did not decline after four weeks of “going cold turkey” on Facebook.

The authors claim that this result shows that Facebook has significant positive value for users, but I think this is a misinterpretation of the results. People are willing to pay enormous amounts of money to buy cigarettes, vaping devices and other forms of legal drugs even though study after study shows that wellbeing increases if they give up smoking. In this sense, the results show to me that Facebook is like a tobacco company selling unhealthy goods and services to consumers and exploiting their addiction. And while people who stop smoking have a certain resilience to taking up smoking again, once they have abstained for a few months, it seems that the addictive effects of Facebook may last longer than the ones of cigarettes. That may simply be because by now so many people are on Facebook that it has become a significant part of almost everybody’s life, so that missing out on Facebook creates some kind of permanent state of withdrawal. But as the study shows, the price for missing out on Facebook is increased happiness and life satisfaction. Not the worst trade-off.

Change in wellbeing after turning off Facebook

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Source: Allcott et al. (2019).

Note: Negative feelings are multiplied by -1 so that points to the right of the red line indicate improvement of wellbeing and points to the left indicate deterioration of wellbeing. SMS are responses to random SMS sent to participants testing their emotions in real time. Blue bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.