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When Facebook Came Calling…

When I give interviews about the potential harms of social media, I often tell a story from early in my career as a professor. In this tale, I was walking across the campus of a well-known university, on my way to give a talk to a student group about stress and academic success. I was escorted by a professor involved with the school’s student mental health clinic.

As we chatted, she casually mentioned an interesting development they’d noticed at the clinic. A few years earlier, seemingly all at once, the number of students they served significantly increased. Even more curious, the students all seemed to be suffering from the same cluster of previously-rare anxiety-related issues.

I asked her what she thought explained this change.

She responded without hesitation: “smartphones.”

As she then elaborated, the first classes to arrive on campus already immersed in the phone-enabled world of social media and ubiquitous connectivity were suddenly and more notably anxious than those who had come before.

I’ve been involved in many public discussions and debates on the promises and perils of network technologies in the years that have elapsed since that fateful conversation. I even ended up writing a bestselling book on the topic. Throughout this whole period, however, that story I first heard as a young professor stuck with me.

Which is why I was fascinated when, earlier today, a colleague of mine at Georgetown pointed me toward a new paper, co-authored by a trio of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, that argues that the experience described to me so many years earlier might have actually been quite common.

This paper, titled “Social Media and Mental Health,” leverages an ingenious natural experiment. When Facebook first began to spread among college campuses in the first decade of the 2000s, its introduction was staggered, often moving to only a few new schools at a time. (I still remember when Facebook arrived at Dartmouth during my senior year in 2004. It was a big event.)

The authors of this paper connect a dataset containing the dates when Facebook was introduced to 775 different colleges with answers from seventeen consecutive waves of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a comprehensive and longstanding survey of student mental health.

Using a statistical technique called difference in differences, the researchers quantified changes in the mental health status of students right before and right after they were given access to Facebook. Putting aside for now some technical discussion about how to properly obtain robustness from such analyses, the authors summarize their results as follows:

“Our main finding is that the introduction of Facebook at a college had a negative effect on student mental health. Our index of poor mental health, which aggregates all the relevant mental health variables in the NCHA survey, increased by 0.085 standard deviation units as a result of the Facebook roll-out. As a point of comparison, this magnitude is around 22% of the effect of losing one’s job on mental health.”

They go on to elaborate that the condition driving the results are “primarily depression and anxiety-related disorders.”

There are many other interesting findings described in this paper. The authors note, for example, that academic performance also suffered after the introduction of Facebook. As a placebo check, they then looked at physical health, which shouldn’t be impacted by the arrival of social media, and found, as expected, that Facebook’s arrival didn’t impact this variable.

I recommend that you read the full paper for more details. But for now, I’m both pleased and dismayed to learn that the story that originally helped pique my interest in the topic of social media and mental health so many years earlier was indeed a warning sign for what was to come.

14 thoughts on “When Facebook Came Calling…”

  1. And this was *before* the like button and the infinite scrolling timeline. I wonder if it’s still only 22% of the effect of losing one’s job now.

  2. Thanks for posting this article, very interesting. As someone who can remember the time before smartphones and social media, it’s clear to see the mental health issues they are causing and to a certain extent the toxic world that can exist on these platforms, but to have data that substantiates this view is helpful. It is a sad thought that younger people today only know the ‘smartphone world’ and one hopes that the realization that we are the product on these sites and contrary to what may be advertised these sites do not exist for the benefit of the users but are there to make money.

  3. That is an ingenious research methodology. I’m not surprised by the results given your research in Digital Minimalism and in the recently published Facebook Papers. Thank you for sharing this paper; I’m in graduate school right now and writing a paper on how Facebook is transforming our discourse communities, and I think I have the perfect place within my paper to cite this research.

  4. I deleted all my social media Apps today(I can still access them if I need to from my laptop)so that I can focus more on the important tasks at work and have some more family time at home.
    I hope I can succeed

    • Backing you Omar! 🙂 When I stopped logging onto fb, I received up to 20 notifications for things like ‘so-and-so has posted’, ‘we think you might like this post.’ The number of notifications were arbitrary + content irrelevant. It was weirdly funny to realise a machine was just randomly allocating a number of notifications above a certain high threshold. Then adding randomised descriptions to try and trick me to think I was missing out. I hope it goes well for you 🙂

      • I’ve read and struggled with DM. As a millennial who’s everyone friends and peers are on IG, Snap, and Twitter it’s extremely difficult to not dabble back in. I’ve taken it to buying a time locked Tupperware box to lock my phone in when I’m at home. I also bought a flip phone and I forward calls from my iPhone to it. The world is very quiet and boring with it. When I do pull out my phone people are perplexed by my flipper. I tell them…Trust me I am a better driver, employee, friend, and family member without my dopamine hijacking device. Nobody ever wishes when they are out at lunch that their person was on their phone more or an employee to be on their phone more or even when watching their kid. I do not suffer from anxiety or any kind of depression. It’s pretty neat. Once in a blue moon I will go on my iPhone have a day or two where I’m playing with it then it goes in the box. I can feel the creep and power of social media, youtube, texting after just a few positive interactions. I’d rather live real life instead of through a screen.

  5. The answer isn’t to delete social media though. All social media did was make the average more aware of their rank in the global social hierarchy. We’re humans. We can’t leave social hierarchies entirely or else we go insane from loneliness. The only way to negate the anxiety and depression from social media is to climb up the social hierarchy. The mental benefits from deleting social media entirely are only temporary as not having social media isolates yourself from actual in real life social circles over time.

    • Brandon,
      Consider reading Cal’s work, Digital Minimalism. You will find a much more nuanced view there than deleting the apps. Also consider Untethered and How to Break Up with Your phone for some further ideas and perspectives.
      Very Best,

  6. Cal, how do you see the use of social media today and how they ( owners) use it to manipulate and censor even Nobel prize winners on their platforms?

  7. There are rather obvious, substantive reasons that Facebook, etc., can have a negative psychological impact on people. (likes, emphasis of status in social hierarchy, etc.) It tends to create a constant self focus, coupled with constant comparison to others, which seems self-evidently unhealthy.

    Just as damaging, maybe moreso in the long run, is the distraction feature, whereby people are essentially training themselves to lose the ability to have stable attention, and are losing the ability to deal with even mild discomfort, such as boredom. Cal’s work is such a refreshing push in the opposite direction.

    It alarms me, as an experienced meditator, that social media, and ubiquitous devices, tend to develop in people’s brains the exact opposite qualities that are known benefits of meditating. Being addicted to your phone and social media is essentially anti-meditation. I’m confident that in the long run experts will explore this deeply. I suspect it is something of a continuum, with strong ability to focus, and be present (coupled with low neurosis) on one end, and high distractibility, self-focus, rumination (coupled with high neurosis) on the other end.


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