Evidence that too much social media is making us unhappy

We published a piece at HBR this past week on Facebook and well-being, by two researchers writing about their recent study:

Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

My view on this has changed over the years, based on both research and experience. In 2012, I was skeptical about an Atlantic piece saying Facebook was making people lonely. It seemed more likely that lonely people were more heavily using Facebook. By 2013, I was at least willing to entertain the idea that social media was bad for us. By 2014, I was willing to say that “it depends,” and to acknowledge that the balance of evidence might be shifting.

Of course, it still depends. The impact of social media can be positive or negative, depending on a host of factors. But what if we’re just communicating with each other too much? At best, it seems social media is running into diminishing marginal returns; at worst, we’re on the other side of an upside-down-U. The internet lets us communicate with each other. As it spreads, people communicate more — email, then Facebook, then Twitter, etc. — and at first welfare improves. Then either welfare plateaus (diminishing returns), or it actually starts going down (upside-down-U).

Sure enough, the research we covered suggests something similar:

Overall our results suggests that well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use. If this is the case, our results contrast with previous research arguing that the quantity of social media interaction is irrelevant, and that only the quality of those interactions matter.

There’s some forthcoming research on the benefit to consumers from various online services. I’ll hopefully cover it when it’s out, but at a glance it suggests diminishing returns: the benefits of email are far larger than from Snapchat, for instance.

That’s starting to look like the best case scenario. Either social media is fine, but each platform isn’t much better than the one that came before, or it’s harmful, at least for the people who use it most.