The benefits of unplugging
An FKD Feature exclusive

A study recently has been released examining the effects of ceasing Facebook use for one month. A dual effort from researchers at Stanford and New York University, the study aimed to show that deactivating one’s Facebook account would bear overwhelmingly positive results; at least, this was their hypothesis.

The study

Participants in the study, of which there were close to 3,000 subjects, were randomly placed in one of two groups: The first group would deactivate their accounts for one month, and the second group (the control group), would not deactivate their accounts throughout the study but would be monitored. The study included participants that averaged 15 minutes of Facebook use per day, but the average user logged onto Facebook for roughly an hour a day, while heavy users averaged three hours or more.

The participants were asked to fill out an extensive questionnaire that inquired into users’ general moods, their political preferences and partisan views before the study commenced. The study also tracked and mapped users’ daily routines. The study operators asked participants how much they would require in payment to deactivate their accounts for a month. The average request was $100.

The subjects regularly received text messages to assess their moods throughout the month. This was believed to be more thorough than simply asking participants to fill out a post-study questionnaire hours or days later. Some participants said they had not appreciated the benefits of the platform until they had shut it down. “What I missed was my connections to people, of course, but also streaming events on Facebook Live, politics especially, when you know you’re watching with people interested in the same thing,” said study subject Connie Graves, 56, a professional home health aid in Texas. “And I realized I also like having one place where I could get all the information I wanted, boom-boom-boom, right there.”

The participants did, however, have access to Facebook Messenger throughout the study.

The results

When the month was over, the quitters and control subjects again filled out extensive surveys that assessed changes in their state of mind, political awareness and partisan passion, as well as the ebb and flow of their daily activities, online and off, since the experiment began.

For abstainers, breaking up with Facebook freed up about an hour a day, on average, and more than twice that for the heaviest users. They also reported spending more time offline, including with friends and family, or watching TV. “I would have expected more substitution from Facebook to other digital things — Twitter, Snapchat, online browsing,” said Matthew Gentzkow, one of the study’s authors. “That didn’t happen, and for me, at least, it was a surprise.” On tests of political knowledge, the abstainers scored a few points lower than they did before deactivating their accounts. The political findings suggest that Facebook is a significant source of news for many people.

Partisan polarization decreased around 5 to 15 percent, suggesting that Facebook may contribute to intense and impassioned political views. The most striking result from the study may be that deactivating Facebook had a positive but small effect on people’s moods and life satisfaction. The finding tempers the widely held presumption that habitual social-media use causes real psychological distress. If heavy Facebook use caused mood problems, the researchers would have expected to see the moods of heavy users improve by a greater amount relative to lightweight users. But that didn’t happen, which suggested that the heavy users were moody before they were sucked deeply into Facebook.

Takeaway

It is too early to draw hard conclusions on the psychological effects of quitting Facebook. There have been quite a few randomized studies that found users’ moods lifted when their access to social media was restricted, so this was not an entirely novel finding. But, still, the results are interesting. The mild mood raise shows that Facebook may not be quite as bad for temperament as has been casually asserted. But, the findings about political polarization are somewhat more pertinent; especially in an increasingly politically polarizing American cultural environment.

 

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Posted 02.05.2019 - 09:43 am EDT