March 1, 2020
In the most recent issue of the prestigious American Economic Review, a group of well-known economists published a paper titled “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” It presents the results of one of the largest randomized trials ever conducted to directly measure the personal impact of deactivating Facebook.
The experimental design is straightforward. Using Facebook ads, the researchers recruited 2,743 users who were willing to leave Facebook for one month in exchange for a cash reward. They then randomly divided these users into a Treatment group, that followed through with the deactivation, and a Control group, that was asked to keep using the platform.
The researchers deployed surveys, emails, text messages, and monitoring software to measure both the subjective well-being and behavior of both groups, both during and after the experiment.
Here are some highlights of what they found:
- “Deactivating Facebook freed up 60 minutes per day for the average person in our Treatment group.” Much of this time was reinvested in offline activities, including, notably, socializing with friends and family.
- “Deactivation caused small but significant improvements in well-being, and in particular in self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety.” The researchers report this effect to be around 25-40% of the effect typically attributed to participating in therapy.
- “As the experiment ended, participants reported planning to use Facebook much less in the future.” Five percent of the Treatment group went even farther and declined to reactivate their account after the experiment ended.
- “The Treatment group was less likely to say they follow news about politics or the President, and less able to correctly answer factual questions about recent news events.” This was not surprising given that this group spent 15% less time reading any type of online news during the experiment.
- “Deactivation significantly reduced polarization of views on policy issues and a measure of exposure to polarizing news.” On the other hand, it didn’t significantly reduce negative feelings about the other political party.
This study validates many of the ideas from Digital Minimalism (indeed, the paper even cites the book in its introduction). People spend more time on social media than they realize, and stepping away frees up time for more rewarding offline activities, leading, in turn, to an increase in self-reported happiness and a decrease in self-reported anxiety.
The main negative impact experienced by the Treatment group was that they were less up to date on the news. Some might argue that this isn’t really negative, but even for those who prioritize current events knowledge, there are, obviously, many better ways to keep up with news than Facebook.
Perhaps most interesting was the disconnect between the subjects’ experience with deactivating Facebook and their prediction about how other people would react. “About 80 percent of the Treatment group agreed that deactivation was good for them,” reports the researchers. But this same group was likely to believe that others wouldn’t experience similar positive effects, as they would likely “miss out” more. The specter of FOMO, in other words, is hard to shake, even after you’ve learned through direct experience that in your own case this “fear” was largely hype.
This final result tells me that perhaps an early important step in freeing our culture from indentured servitude in social media’s attention mines is convincing people that abstention is an option in the first place.