If You Want to Be Happy, Quit Facebook?

By Neuroskeptic | November 16, 2016 12:30 pm

A remarkable paper claims that staying off Facebook for a week could make you happier: The Facebook Experiment, by Morten Tromholt of Denmark.

quit_facebook

What makes this study so interesting is that it was a randomized controlled trial (RCT) and so was able, at least in theory, to determine whether quitting Facebook actually causes changes in well-being. Previously, there has been lots of research reporting correlations between social network use and happiness, but correlation isn’t causation.

Tromholt recruited (via Facebook, of course) 1,095 Danish participants, who were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. The ‘treatment group’ were instructed not to use Facebook for one week, and were recommended to uninstall the Facebook app from their phones if they had it. At the end of the study, 87% of the treatment group reported having succesfully avoided Facebook the whole week. Meanwhile, the ‘control group’ were told to continue using the site normally.

The results showed that the treatment group reported significantly higher ‘life satisfaction’ and more positive emotions vs. the control group (p < 0.001 in both cases). These effects were relatively small, however, for instance the group difference in life satisfaction was 0.37 on a scale that ranged from 1-10.
Tromholt concludes that

People’s emotional life improves significantly when they quit Facebook for 1 week… Millions of hours are spent on Facebook each day. We are surely better connected now than ever before, but is this new connectedness doing any good to our well-being? According to the present study, the answer is no…

This is a nice little study, but in my mind it doesn’t prove all that much. The trial wasn’t blinded – i.e. the participants of necessity knew which group they were in – and the outcome measures were all purely subjective, self-report questionnaires.

Bearing in mind that those who volunteered for the study probably wanted to cut down on their Facebook use to some extent (otherwise why enroll?), it’s not hard to imagine that the ‘treatment’ group expected to feel better upon quitting and, hence, did so (the placebo effect) or at least reported doing so (demand effect). It’s also worth noting that one week is not very long: we really want to know the effects of quitting social media over months or years.

However, I really like the idea of randomized controlled trials targeting internet behaviors. Perhaps we need a trial to determine whether reading this blog affects well-being?

ResearchBlogging.orgTromholt M (2016). The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 19 (11), 661-666 PMID: 27831756

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  • Morbeau

    Of course reading this blog affects my well-being. But only if I get the links from Twitter.

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  • smut clyde

    The corollary follows that joining the Facebok will make you less happy. This too is equally testable, and if there is a placebo / Hawthorne effect, it will act in the opposite direction from the quitting case.

    There remains the challenge of contacting non-FB users to recruit subjects. If only there were suitable science-oriented blogs.

    • http://www.limpinggazelles.com themisanthrope

      “There remains the challenge of contacting non-FB users to recruit subjects.”

      You’re in luck. Prior to the Trump presidency, that would have been called “torture.”

  • joseph2237

    I don’t do FakeBook. Will never do FakeBook.Too loose a format, saying what ever pops into your head does not make for a good conversation.

  • Денис Бурчаков

    Personal experience follows: quitting Facebook did not make me happier, but helped to reduce anxiety, increase attention-span and improve sleep. Perhaps this is due to minimised exposure to late evening bright screen use, hence better melatonin and and sleep quality.

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  • http://www.limpinggazelles.com themisanthrope

    I’m going to go out on a limb and take a wild guess that getting *any* huge time-suck (with little real substance to show for it) out of your life would make anyone feel better. I never gave it up to FB in the first place and my Twitter account gathers dust, but the day I linked out of LinkedIn, a perceived “necessary evil” for professionals, was cathartic.

  • Katy Litfin Kuhn

    Reducing social media and screen time allows for good old fashion daydreaming, reflection and creativity. Basically an attunement with one’s self. So necessary for well being as well as actually participating in the world.

  • Thomas Martin

    I do not miss Facebook. Too many advertisements, false news lies, and hatred. Goodbye forever.

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  • Figjam_US

    …this past election and subsequent result has soured my feelings about FB. Spending less time on it – and yes, I do feel better.

  • Joe Sadoski

    I recently quit Facebook for a week as well. I suspect recently that I might have some serious anxiety issues, and so much of my Facebook feed is negative that I was really overstimulated. I got better sleep, I was less anxious, and it was much easier for me to get to a positive place. I’m probably going to delete it from my phone, but I still use messenger quite a bit and it needs to be installed.

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  • OWilson

    Ever tried conservatism?

    Good for your mental well being (no group hugs or “safe spaces”, or group primal scream therapy required to deal with normal events, sports or politics in real life).

    You can even occasionally check in to your Facebook page and see what distant family and friends are up to, without getting addicted or depressed!

    Highly recommended! :)

  • Erik Bosma

    I went on it for about 5 or 6 months. By that time most people either started ignoring me or just down right hated me. I was so sick of most of them plastering my ‘status’ with their hubris and inanities I would always rant at them or tell them “who cares”. Once I quit, I felt fine within a week.

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  • Franck Ramus

    There are of course lots of misuses of social networks that are frequent and may explain why many people are better off without them.
    I would favour a much more trivial explanation: that social networks are in a large part a news feed, and in particular bad news tend to spread rapidly and be amplified, creating anxiety.
    This hypothesis suggests that a good comparison would have been on vs. off the daily news (whether TV, radio or newspaper, but for a similar amount of time as typical facebook use). I bet the group difference would have been the same (if not larger).

  • smut clyde

    So non-FaceBok users are happier but now I am informed that FaceBok users live longer. It was in PNAS so it must be true.

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  • Anne A.

    Amen

  • Денис Бурчаков

    Well, melatonin is a synegrist for oxytocin…though this is shown only in uterine tissue, and AFAIK I have no uterus…

  • Ulrich Schimmack

    Reading this blog does affect my well-being, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. What is the net effect? Hard to tell.

    In this case, I liked finding out about the study. I didn’t like your comment about the measurement of happiness/well-being. Yes, the measure is subjective, that is the nature of the construct. Happiness/well-being is subjective. Yes, they used self-report, but that is not necessarily a problem. These measures have demonstrated validity. Yes, they can be biased but it would require evidence to show that the results here are biased. What other measure could the authors have used to measure happiness?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Hmm, perhaps I wasn’t clear there, sorry. My point is that the subjective nature of the reports, combined with the fact that the participants may have expected to feel better upon quitting Facebook, while the control group had no such expectations of improvement, creates a risk of bias.

  • Some Rabbit

    I was on FB a short time years ago because a web designer convinced me I needed to integrate my website with social media. BULL! It was nothing but a hassle and the FB API stole comment traffic from the website. Since then I dumped my FB wall and haven’t missed it one bit.

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  • dalewynn

    Off of Facebook again after feeling much better the first time. Off rest of 2017, and after last year’s experiment, I know it will be good.

  • Chris J

    I plan to quit for a month, study the language of the country I live in now more and do more art. At the end of one month, I will see if I miss Facebook or not.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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