Passively reading Facebook posts — without posting messages or responding to comments — makes users feel bad about themselves, some studies have discovered. The surprising development is that Facebook itself is getting the word out about the negative news.
A 2015 study at the University of Michigan, for example, found that students who simply read Facebook posts for 10 minutes were in a worse mood by the end of the day than test subjects who posted messages or commented on friends’ posts. Researchers theorize that users who only read posts may be constantly comparing their own lives to others’ posts and feel as if they’re coming up short. Or consumers may simply be missing out on the kind of human interaction necessary for a healthier state of mind, some observers speculate.
“In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading, but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward,” said an unusual Facebook company blog post Friday written by the company’s director of research, David Ginsberg, and Facebook social psychologist Moira Burke.
The research appears to be bad news for Facebook. But, in fact, the findings support the company’s push to get users to be more active on the site, the blog noted.
Research has also found that “interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being,” Facebook said.
Facebook’s own research with Carnegie Mellon University found that people who “sent or received more messages, comments and timeline posts reported improvements in social support, depression and loneliness,” Facebook said. “The positive effects were even stronger when people talked with their close friends online.”
Not all research has reached similar conclusions. A study by Oxford and the University of California, San Diego, researchers found that face-to-face interactions contributed to a sense of well-being rather than contacts via computer. “The negative associations of Facebook use were comparable to or greater in magnitude than the positive impact of offline interactions, which suggests a possible tradeoff between offline and online relationships,” stated the abstract of the study.
One commenter to the Facebook blog post noted that it’s “no surprise your conclusions — encouraging ‘active’ Facebook use — are aligned with Facebook’s business interests. [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has been desperate to boost engagement for years ... and this gives Facebook cover to nag us into sharing, commenting, and posting more than ever — for our own good!”
The company is delving into the debate amid a flurry of negative news about Facebook, including accusations of being a mindless engine for Russian fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign. Former Facebook Vice President Chamath Palihapitiya told Stanford University graduate business students last month that social media is destroying society.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Palihapitiya said. “No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. ... This is a global problem.” Palihapitiya said he feels “tremendous guilt” for the role he played in making Facebook so prominent. “In the back, deep, deep recesses of our mind, we kind of knew something bad could happen.”
Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, also warned last month that the site was built to exploit people’s psychological weaknesses. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he told an audience in Philadelphia.
After a stern rebuke from Facebook, Palihapitiya cranked back his comments. “I genuinely believe that Facebook is a force for good in the world,” he said on his Facebook page. “My comments were meant to start an important conversation, not to criticize one company — particularly one I love.”