What do you think would happen if you stopped using Facebook for a month? A team of researchers at Stanford University and New York University decided to find out. They launched one of the biggest, most scientifically rigorous studies of quitting Facebook undertaken so far. 

Unlike some Facebook studies, this research looked only at adults. It eliminated very light Facebook users (less than 15 minutes a day) and very heavy ones (more than 10 hours a day). It compared results for those who quit Facebook for four or eight weeks with a control group that was only asked quit the social network for an initial 24 hours. Researchers checked participants' Facebook profiles several times a day to make sure participants were leaving their accounts deactivated. And it sent them daily text messages inquiring how they were feeling at that moment, a more accurate way to track someone's mood than asking them to report their feelings after the fact.

In fact, the research team, Hunt Allcott of NYU and Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford, seem to have done everything right. "This is the way to answer these kinds of questions; it's the gold standard for how to do science," Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy told the New York Times

What would happen if you quit Facebook for a month? Here's what the research shows:

1. You'd spend more time with family and friends and watching TV.

Not surprisingly, people who deactivated their Facebook accounts found themselves with a lot more free time. But it is interesting to note that they spent most of that extra time offline. They didn't have to--they were free to use other social networks and even Facebook Messenger. Still, they reported spending more time watching TV, and more time socializing with family and friends. That's significant because plenty of research shows that the more time you spend with other people in the real, not virtual world, the healthier and happier you'll be. 

2. You'd be somewhat happier.

Consistent with other research, this study showed that stopping their use of Facebook makes people happier. "Deactivation caused small but significant improvements in well-being, and in particular on self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety," the researchers write. By way of comparison, they explain, this improvement in self-reported well-being "is about 25 to 40 percent of the effect of psychological interventions including self-help therapy, group traincurrent eventsing, and individual therapy."

3. You'd know less about politics and you'd be much less outraged.

Many Facebook users report that it is their primary source of news and the study bore this out, finding that subjects were slightly less able to correctly answer questions about current events. But it also found that those who stayed off Facebook were considerably less polarized than their Facebook-using counterparts. "Deactivation [of Facebook] significantly reduced polarization of views on policy issues and a measure of exposure to polarizing news," the researchers wrote? How much less polarized were the people who stayed off Facebook? For comparison, the researchers cited a study that showed political polarization in the general U.S. population increased by .38 standard deviations between 1996 (when Bill Clinton was elected to his second presidential term) and 2018. Staying off Facebook for four weeks caused polarization to fall by 0.16 standard deviations, or just under half that amount.

That finding makes sense because so many people who are outraged or disgusted by the political opposition seem to be getting their news, and also expressing their sentiments, on Facebook. Not only that, we now know that large numbers of Russian operatives have been secretly working on Facebook for the past several years and their main objective seems to be to create as much polarization as they can in the U.S. population. Apparently, it's working.

4. You'd use Facebook a lot less in the future.

To me, one of the most interesting findings of the study is that taking a Facebook break has long-term results. At the end of the experiment, most participants said they planned to use Facebook less in the future. But several weeks later, the subjects who had quit the social network for four weeks were still spending 23 percent less time on Facebook than their counterparts in the control group. When researchers sent all participants a follow-up email with some tips for limiting the time they spent on social media, those who had stayed off Facebook for four weeks were likelier to click on those tips. They were also likelier to report that they'd deleted the Facebook app from their phones, and were being more careful about how much time they spent on Facebook. Perhaps most impressive, nine weeks after the experiment was over, 5 percent of those who'd spent four weeks away from Facebook still had their accounts deactivated.

"Reduced post-experiment use aligns with our finding that deactivation improved subjective well-being, and it is also consistent with the hypotheses that Facebook is habit forming," the researchers write. "Or that people learned that they enjoy life without Facebook more than they had anticipated."

Would you enjoy life without Facebook more than you think? Try it for four weeks or even one week, and you'll get to find out for yourself.

Published on: Jan 31, 2019
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