Study suggests that quitting Facebook makes you less stressed but more lonely
Recently, a large number of people have made the decision to quit Facebook, and this measure hasn't come out of the blue. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, more and more social media users have become suspicious of the way Silicon Valley exploits their personal data; particularly when it is used by troll farms and extremist groups to advance certain unsavoury political agendas.
The trouble began in March 2018, when whistleblower Alexander Nix revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analysis company, had been covertly acquiring the personal information of approximately 50 million Facebook users, via apps which claimed that they were harvesting data for academic purposes.
Originally, the Cambridge Analytica app "thisisyourdigitallife" was installed by a mere 270,000 Facebook users. However, the app then required users to give it permission to take personal data from their friends as well, and thus the data theft spread until Nix decided to come clean. As a result, Facebook saw a $37 billion drop in its value and polls show that only 41 per cent of users trust Zuckerberg with their private information. Many are now deleting their Facebook accounts.
But what will the effect of this mass social media exodus be and is it really such a good idea? Many of the people who are just now deleting Facebook have had it for most of their lives. A research team from the University of Queensland, led by psychology lecturer Eric Vanman, investigated the effects of a breakup with social media, and discovered that, while there are some positive effects, there are also negative consequences as well. People who quit Facebook can expect to find themselves becoming less stressed, but also more lonely over time.
The study, entitled "The burden of online friends: the effects of giving up Facebook on stress and well-being" was published in the Journal of Social Psychology in March. The Australian researchers observed 138 participants, whom they separated into two distinct groups. The first team was told to stay off Facebook for five days, while a control group was allowed to continue using it. The volunteers then provided the researchers with saliva samples at the beginning of the study and then again five days later, to measure the changes to the levels of cortisol in their bodies.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal gland, which controls a variety of the body's functions, including blood sugar levels and our blood pressure. Our cortisol concentration can therefore be used to measure how much stress we are experiencing. The group that quit Facebook had lower cortisol levels, but when surveyed about their own personal feelings, the participants didn't report feeling any better. They did report that they felt a lot more socially isolated, however.
Discussing his findings, Dr Vanman stated:
"People experienced less well-being after those five days without Facebook — they felt less content with their lives — from the resulting social disconnection of being cut-off from their Facebook friends. We don’t think that this is necessarily unique to Facebook, as people’s stress levels will probably reduce anytime they take a break from their favourite social media platforms."
"However, while participants in our study showed an improvement in physiological stress by giving up Facebook, they also reported lower feelings of well-being. People said they felt more unsatisfied with their life, and were looking forward to resuming their Facebook activity ... Facebook has become an essential social tool for millions of users and it obviously provides many benefits. Yet, because it conveys so much social information about a large network of people, it can also be taxing."
"It seems that people take a break because they’re too stressed, but return to Facebook whenever they feel unhappy because they have been cut off from their friends. It then becomes stressful again after a while, so they take another break. And so on ... Others [colleagues] admitted that they took similar breaks from Facebook when they found it too stressful or overwhelming. One of my students kept herself off Facebook by having her friend change her password so she wouldn’t be tempted to come back on."
So it seems like the best way to cope with social media exhaustion is not to quit altogether, but to give yourself periodic breaks from time to time. Try a little Facebook detox for a weekend when it's all getting a bit too overwhelming. But maybe think twice before you delete it altogether. Still, that hasn't stopped many people from swearing off it for good. It may take a while for the world's most popular social network to regain the trust of the public again.