Are social media making us miserable?
Stuart Richie rebuts some of the recent studies:
And here’s the thing: when the authors of the “Facebook arrival” study raised their standards in this way, running a correction for multiple comparisons, all the results they found for well-being were no longer statistically significant. That is, a somewhat more conservative way of looking at the data indicated that every result they found was statistically indistinguishable from a scenario where Facebook had no effect on well-being whatsoever.
Now let’s turn to the second study, which was a randomised controlled trial where 1,637 adults were randomly assigned to shut down their Facebook account for four weeks, or go on using it as normal. Let’s call it the “deactivating Facebook” study. This “famous” study has been described as “the most impressive by far” in this area, and was the only study cited in the Financial Times as an example of the “growing body of research showing that reducing time on social media improves mental health”.
The bottom-line result was that leaving Facebook for a month led to higher well-being, as measured on a questionnaire at the end of the month. But again, looking in a bit more detail raises some important questions.
First, the deactivation happened in the weeks leading up to the 2018 US midterm elections. This was quite deliberate, because the researchers also wanted to look at how Facebook affected people’s political polarisation. But it does mean that the results they found might not apply to deactivating Facebook at other, less fractious times – maybe it’s particularly good to be away from Facebook during an election, when you can avoid hearing other people’s daft political opinions.
Second, just like the other Facebook study, the researchers tested a lot of hypotheses – and again, they used a correction to reduce false-positives. This time, the results weren’t wiped out entirely – but almost. Of the four questionnaire items that showed statistically-significant results before the correction, only one – “how lonely are you?” – remained significant after correction.
It’s debatable whether even this result would survive the researchers corrected for all the other statistical tests they ran. Not only that, but they also ran a second model, controlling for the overall amount of time people used Facebook, and this found even fewer results than the first one.
Third, as well as the well-being questionnaire at the end of the study, the participants got daily text messages asking them how happy they were, among other questions. Oddly, these showed absolutely no effect of being off Facebook – and not even the slightest hint of a trend in that direction.
Here is the entire piece, which is well thought out.