At the turn of 2017, millions of people will resolve to spend less time on Facebook. Like so many resolutions, it’s a fine idea… but most people will fail before January 31. Our New Year’s proclamations are notoriously hard to keep.
If your resolution is Facebook related, we’d encourage your to steel yourself — as more and more scientists have started to believe that spending time on the platform is outright bad for you. To be fair to Facebook, it’s a vast social experiment that not even its creators realized they were building. Nobody really knew what would happen when we began using computers to build social connections. What’s starting to come into focus, as the science community studies Facebook, is that it has to be used smartly, instead of as a social crutch.
Before you ask, yes, Facebook can be addictive, although there have yet to be any of the huge gold standard studies that generally firm up scientific consensus on an issue. Many studies on Facebook are small, less than 500 participants or even less than 100 in many cases, and are overwhelmingly focused on college students and young adults. Still, so far, the research does indicate that Facebook can be addictive — in the sense that you use it so much it negatively impacts your life. The literature so far offers a fairly clear trend: If people are awkward in person, or have trouble interacting in person, Facebook can be an incredibly useful tool; we all know the thrill of logging in and seeing a huge number of notifications. But, like anything else, there can be too much of a good thing; Facebook can twist around on you and make your mood worse, not better.
How, though? The basic idea is that when you’re on Facebook, you’re subconsciously, or perhaps consciously, comparing yourself to everybody on your feed, and usually coming up short — something found repeatedly like in this 2014 study or one from 2013. It’s a bit more complicated than just “Facebook is bad across the board.” A lot depends on your outlook in life: A 2016 study found that goal-driven people found Facebook inspiring and offered them something to reach for, while those who weren’t goal driven simply felt left behind.
Studies are showing it’s also a matter of how you use Facebook. A new study from the University of Copenhagen tracked 1000 participants and found that passive scrolling through Facebook and reading statuses was indeed more likely to encourage negative emotions, but that if you used Facebook to talk to people and to form personal connections, you were okay. In other words, the better you know people on Facebook, the less likely you are to be brought down by the fact they’re on vacation while you’re working on Christmas Eve. Similarly, research into Facebook and self-esteem points to the idea that sharing those vacation photos and weight-loss statuses might help how you view yourself, although just how Facebook and your personal self-perception interact is still a matter of debate.
Finally, there’s who you connect with. Everyone has stalked their ex on Facebook, and it turns out, to nobody’s surprise, that’s an absolutely terrible habit which disrupts your emotional recovery and well-being — no matter what happens. While there doesn’t seem to be much literature on the stress of having to mute your racist aunt or getting pinged by high school “friends” who just so happen to be selling Beachbody, one doubts having to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of Facebook etiquette does much for your mental health, either.
So, where does that leave those of us thinking about ditching Facebook this year, or at least interacting with it in a more healthy way? There are a few crucial takeaways from the science. The first is pretty straightforward; just idly scrolling through Facebook to kill time probably isn’t healthy. So, set that aside: Delete the app off your phone, change your browser’s landing page, and consider downloading an extension that only lets you stay on Facebook for a set amount of time. And if you use it primarily for Messenger, that’s a separate app anyway, and not one you need Facebook for.
Secondly, look at how you use Facebook overall. How often are you engaging with people? What are you talking about? When you’re done using Facebook, in a given session, ask yourself how you feel. If the answer is “Not good,” then why keep doing it? Or why keep doing it the same way?
Next, look at your list of friends. Keep in mind, you can be friends with a person on Facebook, but never see a single thing they post. So if people are bringing you down, just limit which of their posts you see, especially if they’re the friend of a friend. Be honest: Do you care about the new job that guy you’ve met at a few parties just landed?
Finally, don’t be shy about telling your Facebook friends you want to see them outside of Facebook, whether over email, or in person, or by text. We’ve got a lot of ways to meet new people, communicate, and enrich each other’s lives; if you see Facebook as a tool in the toolbox, not the be-all end-all, you’re certain to end up happier.