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Thanks for Reading This—Now Log Off of Facebook

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New research finds a link between use of the social network and lower levels of well-being.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Are you feeling less than satisfied with your life? Did you find this post on your Facebook feed?

New research worth sharing suggests there may be a connection between those two answers.

Not surprisingly, given the success of the online social network, Facebook usage has been the subject of much research over the past decade. Results have been contradictory, with some studies linking use of the service to lower well-being, and others finding that it depends if we’re active or passive users.

Well, a new, rigorously designed study has just been published, and it concludes spending time with your “friends” is not conducive to contentment.

“Facebook use does not promote well-being,” Holly Shakya of the University of California–San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Yale University write in the American Journal of Epidemiology. “Users might do well to curtail their use of social media, and focus instead on real-world relationships.”

Unlike most past research on the subject, this is a longitudinal study; it looked at how Facebook usage at one point in time affected well-being one and two years down the road. It also used actual hard data on participants’ Facebook use, rather than relying on their memories or estimations.

The participants were Americans who took part in a nationally representative Gallup panel. During three “waves” of data collection (in 2013, 2014, and 2015), they rated their mental and physical health on a scale of one to four, and their general satisfaction with life on a scale of one to 10. They also named up to eight real-world friends, and noted how close they felt to each.

Facebook data was collected at each wave, including the participant’s number of online “friends;” the number of times they had clicked the “like” button (both in history and over the past 30 days); and the number of times they had updated their status in the past 30 days.

“A clear pattern emerged” from the data, the researchers report. “Although real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.”

Specifically, they found “Liking others’ content, and clicking links posted by friends, were consistently related to compromised well-being.” Perhaps more worrisome, they also report “the number of status updates was related to reports of diminished mental health.”

The researchers concede that their results may simply reflect the fact that unhappy people “may be more likely to seek solace, or attempt to alleviate loneliness, by excessively using Facebook.” But that possibility doesn’t fully explain their findings. They note that, “even after accounting for a person’s initial well-being, we found that using Facebook was associated with a likelihood of diminished future well-being.”

The results suggest “a possible tradeoff between offline and online relationships,” Shakya and Christakis write. Many people, it seems, are spending less time with friends, so they can spend more time with “friends.” This study provides solid evidence that, over the long run, this is not a healthy choice.

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