Facebook’s official news blog is a bit dull, as any good company blog should be. So it was surprising to see a blog post pop up on Friday with the title “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” It was less surprising that a half-trillion-dollar company very much reliant on people continuing to use social media ultimately came to this conclusion: “No, it’s actually very good — as long as you use it the right way.”
The post — written by David Ginsberg, director of research at Facebook, and Moira Burke, a research scientist at Facebook — is a bit of a milestone. As far as we can tell, it’s the first time that people employed by Facebook have admitted that perhaps using social media does make some people feel awful:
The bad: In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward … Though the causes aren’t clear, researchers hypothesize that reading about others online might lead to negative social comparison — and perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering. Another theory is that the internet takes people away from social engagement in person.
But, the researchers employed by Facebook argue, there’s a flip side:
The good: On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being. This ability to connect with relatives, classmates, and colleagues is what drew many of us to Facebook in the first place, and it’s no surprise that staying in touch with these friends and loved ones brings us joy and strengthens our sense of community.
The researchers cite numerous studies showing that there are people who feel better when they reach out to friends and loved ones on social media. “In sum,” they write, “our research and other academic literature suggests that it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being.”
The researchers then go on to point to some of the ways Facebook will make sure you are “actively interacting” on Facebook. They’ve removed clickbait headlines from showing up in your News Feed, instead showing more posts from friends. They’ve introduced the “Snooze” option for muting people for 30 days, or the “Taking a Break” option for keeping exes out of your online life. These are all quality-of-life improvements on Facebook, to be sure, but they all also help improve how long people stay on Facebook. The less you see someone or something annoying or get reminded of an ex, the more you keep browsing through your News Feed — still by far the most important part of Facebook’s business when it comes to making money.
Facebook has taken a bit of a beating from high-profile former employees lately. “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever,” said founding president Sean Parker at a recent event. Former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya was even blunter in his assessment: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” (Palihapitiya has since walked his statements back a bit.) Even Mark Zuckerberg himself seems to be attempting to portray some sort of soulful reawakening with his cross-country tour of the United States.
Facebook took the unusual step of issuing a response to Palihapitiya’s comments, writing on Tuesday, “Chamath has not been at Facebook for over six years. When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too.” This post is probably best viewed as a continuation of that refutation, an attempt to show that Facebook is taking the responsibility of having 2 billion people on its platform seriously.
To be extremely cynical about this: This is an elaborate head fake with a lot of links to academic studies behind paywalls. It gives up a bit of red meat to critics: Sure, Facebook and social media can make people feel bad. But it swoops back in to assert that science shows that as long as you use it in the right way, social media actually makes everyone feel much better.