Tech

Can Facebook Survive If It Makes Us Miserable?

Facebook connected the world. And now it may be making us miserable.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Facebook’s credo has been clear for some time now. In the company’s IPO filing last year, Mark Zuckerberg included it in the opening paragraph and it’s a common refrain from employees and at events. Facebook’s “social mission” is “to make the world more open and connected.”

Facebook’s staggering numbers more than support that the company has succeeded in the most basic sense of that mission. With over 1.1 billion followers, Facebook’s status as one of the world’s most powerful social tools is unquestioned. What’s less known, though — and is the subject of continual study — are the hidden costs of this unparalleled connectivity.

According to a University of Michigan study published yesterday in the online journal Plos One, Facebook use was seen to predict declines in the well-being of surveyed participants, negatively impacting both how people feel from one moment to the next as well as overall life satisfaction.

As UM social psychologist Ethan Kross notes:

On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.

The study draws from a small sample size — only 82 young adults with Facebook accounts and smartphones were sampled via text message questions five times a day for two weeks — but the results are just another piece in a larger stack of evidence to suggest that the ever-increasing hours per month we spend on the site could have a detrimental effect on our lives. “We measured lots and lots of other personality and behavioral dimensions, like, for example, frequency of Facebook use,” Kross told the LA Times. “But none of the factors that we assessed influenced the results. The more you used Facebook, the more your mood dropped.”

Earlier this year, a German study found that Facebook’s social pressures created noticeable stress and feelings of envy, that could, ultimately, lead to people abandoning the network. According to the study:

Shared content does not have to be “explicitly boastful” for envy feelings to emerge. In fact, a lonely user might envy numerous birthday wishes his more sociable peer receives on his FB Wall. Equally, a friend’s change in the relationship status from “single” to “in a relationship” might cause emotional havoc for someone undergoing a painful breakup.

And this anecdotal evidence of stress echoes what a focus group of teens told the Pew Research Center back in May:

They dislike the increasing number of adults on the site, get annoyed when their Facebook friends share inane details, and are drained by the “drama” that they described as happening frequently on the site. The stress of needing to manage their reputation on Facebook also contributes to the lack of enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the site is still where a large amount of socializing takes place, and teens feel they need to stay on Facebook in order to not miss out.

While the organizers of the recent Michigan study tested for and discounted alternative reasons that might account for Facebook’s negative impact on happiness — such as people being more likely to use Facebook when they felt bad — it’s possible the study’s claim that “the more participants used Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time” has more to do with our behavioral patterns than the service itself.

As Alexis Madrigal explains in an excellent post about “The Machine Zone,” it’s easy for Facebook users, similar to those who play slot machines, to be unwittingly lulled into a time-distorting rhythm by repetitive and sometimes rewarding tasks — like looking at an endless stream of your friends’ photos. This behavior can mimic the deleterious effects of gambling and even addiction. And as much as this kind of problem stems from Facebook’s savvy design and engineering, which is geared to keep users on the site, it’s also a natural effect of how we’re wired.

Blame aside, it’s all part of a nagging question that Facebook and other social networks will need to grapple with as they grow and age: Can a social network have a future if it makes us sad? The question isn’t exclusive to Facebook — in a recent survey, social media as an industry ranked third to last in consumer satisfaction, falling below the airline industry.

For now, with most networks still growing steadily, this is less of a concern. But it’s not hard to imagine a future where users will demand social platforms that are not only intensely engaging, but also keenly aware and respectful of how our psychological state works. As Madrigal notes in his post, “fighting the great nullness at the heart of these coercive loops should be one of the goals of technology design, use, and criticism.”

Facebook has succeeded in its mission to connect the world. But we’re only beginning to understand what that means for us.

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