Want to stay healthy, both emotionally and physically? Researchers from UC San Diego and Yale have some simple advice for you: Limit the amount of time you spend on Facebook. While this may sound like typical anti-social media crankiness from academia, this time they have some impressive research to back up their case. Holly Shakya, assistant professor at UC San Diego, and Yale professor Nicholas Christakis spent two years following 5,208 adults who are part of a Gallup long-term study. After asking permission, they monitored these subjects' Facebook use directly from Facebook, rather than asking subjects to report their own use. (People often don't realize how much time they spend on the social network.) And they checked in with subjects on their emotional and physical well-being, as well as their body-mass index (BMI), three times over the course of two years.
"Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being," the researchers wrote in a Harvard Business Review article. "These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year." Yikes.
Why is too much Facebook bad for your emotional health? Previous research has shown that the social network creates a sort of false peer pressure. Since most people are cautious about posting negative or upsetting experiences on Facebook, the social network creates a misleading environment where everyone seems to be doing better and having more fun than you are. As the researchers put it, "Exposure to the carefully curated images from others' lives leads to negative self-comparison."
No substitute for the real thing.
But what of Facebook's magical ability to connect you to friends and family even when they're far away? To help you find long-lost friends and relatives? To help you keep up on what's going on with all the important people in your life? There's lots of research to show that having a social circle and an active social life and community leads to better health and greater longevity. The researchers wondered if a virtual social life and community would create the same benefits.
No, they don't, as these results make clear--in fact they have the opposite effect. In addition to negative self-comparison, the researchers note, increased use of Facebook and other social media tends to take up a lot of people's time and can create an illusion of closeness. To the extent that time spent on Facebook takes you away from real-world social gatherings, you lose the benefit of being in a community, the researchers say. The same is likely true if you're at a gathering in body, but your eyes and mind are locked on your smartphone, checking out your friends' latest posts.
So what should you do? I'm not going to tell you to stop using Facebook. You wouldn't listen to me anyway, and with so many people the world over using the network, it's impossible to just ignore it. But limit your use to no more than the hour or so each day that the average Facebook user spends on the site. And try to put down your phone more often, look up at the people around you, and join the conversation that's happening in the real world.