Facebook turned 15 years old this week, and it's time to quit, new research reveals. Not for the sake of your privacy or your democracy, but, rather, according to the study, because even a short departure from Facebook can have a substantially positive impact on your well-being.
The research, conducted by a team of Stanford University and New York University economists and published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, surveyed a sample of 2,844 Facebook users in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, just over half of whom were instructed to deactivate their Facebook accounts for a four-week period. Studying "a suite of outcomes using text messages, surveys, emails, direct measurement of activity on Facebook and Twitter, and administrative records on voting and electoral contributions," the economists sought to gauge how bailing from Facebook directly affects both individual and social welfare, from interpersonal interactions to engagement with American politics.
The results are fascinating: Deactivation significantly increased subjects' reported subjective well-being, with dramatic impacts on everything from life satisfaction and happiness to anxiety and depression. Not only did 90 percent of respondents report a positive impact from being offline, but the study participants also grew to appreciate the significant role Facebook had played in their lives. In most cases, this meant that subjects often chose not to return to Facebook or even other forms of social media. Those who did return to Facebook reduced their post-deactivation daily mobile app use by 23 percent in the aftermath of their break.
The study finds that the average person who deactivated Facebook freed up about an hour of time every day. "The Treatment group actually spent less time on both non-Facebook social media and other online activities," the authors write, "while devoting more time to a range of offline activities such as watching television alone and spending time with friends and family."
Time spent off Facebook, in other words, wasn't just funneled into other forms of digital connection: It was as though those weeks of Facebook-less existence broke all social networks' grip on the brain.
But avoiding social media wasn't all good. The study details one distinctly negative side effect of a Facebook sabbatical: a lack of broader knowledge of current events. Deactivation "reduced how much people reported they followed news about politics and about President [Donald] Trump, as well as the average minutes per day spent consuming news," the researchers write. Deactivation also reduced political polarization, especially when it comes to issues of empathizing with an opposing political party.
While this may be viewed as a positive by those for whom politics represents a source of trauma, deactivating Facebook also yielded a decrease in broader engagement with all hard news, not just polarized political reporting.
There are some questions about how universal the study's conclusions are. Among the caveats mentioned in the study's conclusion, the most significant is that participants "are relatively young, well-educated, and left-leaning compared to the average Facebook user," as the authors write. And we know that one's age influences how one uses Facebook quite a bit: A highly cited New York University/Princeton University study released last year, for example, found that Americans over the age of 65 were seven times more likely to share fake news on Facebook than those 18 to 29 years old.
While bailing on Facebook is good for the youths, there's reason to believe that it may not be for seniors. Research shows that the family-and-friends relationships that prove an essential bulwark after Facebook deactivation are less and less available as we age. Consider the case of Shirley Chapian, the 76-year-old Nevadan and the subject of a fascinating November of 2018 Washington Post profile of a fake news consumer:
She'd spent almost a decade in Pahrump without really knowing why. The heat could be unbearable. She had no family in Nevada. She loved going to movies, and the town of 30,000 didn't have a theater. It seemed to her like a place in the business of luring people—into the air-conditioned casinos downtown, into the legal brothels on the edge of the desert, into the new developments of cheap housing available for no money down—and in some ways she'd become stuck, too.... "Looking to connect with friends and other like-minded people," she wrote then.
After 15 years on Facebook, escaping for just a month can prove an existential booster shot to your fundamental sense of self. But what if there's nothing to escape to?