After searing criticism from high-profile former execs about its effect on the human condition, Facebook has acknowledged for the first time that social media can harm the mental health of its users. But it absolves itself of responsibility by essentially blaming people for using social tools in the wrong way. Julian Blake reports.
Social media can harm your mental health, Facebook has admitted for the first time. But, to combat depression, its researchers suggest people post more status updates and comments, not less, to bring themselves in “from the sidelines”.
Numerous academic studies have suggested that intensive use of platforms like Facebook can lead to depression, caused by low self-esteem and a sense of isolation. Young people are especially vulnerable to such feelings, say researchers.
Facebook – the social media platform used by more than 2bn people on the planet – has until now ducked out from engaging with any research suggesting its use damages mental health.
But last weekend, for the first time, it acknowledged a growing body of evidence showing that social media behaviour can make people unhappy. In a blog post asking “hard questions”, research director David Ginsberg and research scientist Moira Burke said: “In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information – reading but not interacting with people – they report feeling worse afterwards.”
The pair cited University of Michigan research, which found that students randomly assigned to read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than students assigned to post or talk to friends on the platform.
Facebook also acknowledged a separate study from the University of California San Diego and Yale, which found that people who clicked on four times as many links or liked twice as many posts than average, reported worse mental health, because they made “negative self-comparison”.
But the pair did not conclude that people should spend less time on the platform. Instead, they argued that people would be happier if they engaged more with the content in their feed.
“Actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being,” the researchers suggested.
“It’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being.”
The new spin from the firm follows high-profile criticism from Chamath Palihapitiya, a former senior executive who last week accused Facebook of creating “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” that are “destroying how society works”.
This followed criticism last month by Sean Parker, Facebook’s ex-president, who claimed that the platform’s founders, who include Mark Zuckerberg, knee they were “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker said.
The Facebook post unveiled changes to the platform to improve users’ wellbeing, including a new ‘take a break’ tool, offering greater control over interactions with ex-partners after break-ups, and a ‘snooze” button, that lets users hide a friend’s posts for 30 days without having to unfollow or unfriend them.
In a direct response to support those at risk of suicide, Facebook has deployed new Ai to identify users who could be at risk.
The blog post also confirmed changes to the Facebook news feed to “provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions and reduce passive consumption of low-quality content”. Clickbait headlines and “false news” (FB refuses to call it fake news) will be demoted. Its feed ranking will also promote posts that it deems “personally informative”.
The researchers did not acknowledge or discuss the effects of Instagram, also owned by Facebook, on young people’s mental health.