Facebook Science: How Facebook Breaks Effect Stress and Wellbeingby Carla Clark, PhD | April 9, 2018
Inadvertently, in the wake of recent Facebook data harvesting scandals, Elon Musk and Brian Acton spurring on Facebook users to #DeleteFacebook in past weeks and the resulting Facebook breaks could (potentially) do some good for the average users stress levels. While differences between being deleted, deactivated, or abandoned have yet to be explored, new research is the first to report that the average user can relieve physiological measures of stress by taking a break from Facebook—at least in the short-term.
Findings from a 2013 survey in the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, posit that 61% of current Facebook users reported taking a “Facebook vacation,” in which they voluntarily stopped using Facebook for several weeks or more. Moreover, 20% of adults reported having once used Facebook but that they no longer did so.
In a study that was just published in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers in Australia investigated how taking a Facebook break (i.e., abstaining from using Facebook) effects stress and wellbeing. They recruited 138 active Facebook users and split them into two groups: the Facebook use as normal and five-day Facebook break groups.
Taking a break from Facebook lowered levels of salivary cortisol (a stress biomarker) after just five days. Yet despite this physiologically stress-relieving effect, users taking a Facebook break reported feeling lower levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing than users that continued Facebook use as normal (as measured by subjective reports from the users).
These seemingly contradictory effects are consistent with the general love-hate feelings about Facebook that may typify most active users, exemplified by “I’m done with Facebook” posts one minute and regular selfies and check-ins the next—its a super social tool with tonnes of obvious benefits, but often feels taxing, addictively time-wasting, forces social comparison, lowers self-esteem, and can be an information overload.
Its important to remember that Facebook users in this study were not users that had reached Facebook breaking point and desired a Facebook vacation themselves. They were essentially “cut off” from Facebook for the purpose of the experiment, with the researchers reasoning that subjective feelings of life-satisfaction and well-being were lowered by removing a currently desired means of contact and connection with others, despite the break lowering stress levels by other means.
At first glance, two other Facebook break studies may seem to contradict the reduced wellbeing observed from taking a Facebook break. They reported that subjects reported feeling increased wellbeing when taking a Facebook break over a one-week (study 1) or two-week (study 2) period, particularly for the heaviest Facebook users.
The 5-day break in the newly published cortisol study was perhaps too short to observe the decline in subjective wellbeing previously reported from longer periods of regular Facebook use. Moreover, the Facebook break was also over a weekend, which is typically a wellbeing booster and may have counteracted negative effects of regular Facebook use.
It is also important to note that the participants were recruited based on a willingness to give up Facebook for five days (and not naturally occurring Facebook vacations), and may have over-selected for people already overburdened by Facebook and seeking a good reason to have a Facebook break. However, this didn’t seem to be the case as only a handful of users reported that they expected the Facebook break to be a pleasant experience—the majority of the participants did not think a Facebook break would be a nice experience. As one participant speculated:
I will probably feel…upset as my social life will be totally stopped if I cannot use Facebook and
cannot find my friends in Facebook, I will also feel like left behind as I will not be able to know
what has happened with my Facebook friends in the coming five days.
Many participants (unprompted) expressed happiness that they could get back onto Facebook again because they felt so cut off. Naturally occurring Facebook breaks, on the other hand, may come with better improvements in stress levels that coincide with improved wellbeing because the break is truly desired and needed.
This may also be why the self-reports of stress were not significantly affected (statistically speaking), despite a trend towards reporting lower stress, where their negative perceptions about being cut off from Facebook (e.g., “I’m disconnected!”) influenced their perceived stress.
Additionally, a moderator effect was found when participants were divided on the basis of Dunbar’s number, 150—the number of individuals with whom Dunbar suggested that any one person can maintain stable relationships with. Those with 150 or fewer friends showed a decline in cortisol, whether they took a break or continued to use Facebook as usual. However, the small number of participants who actually had fewer than 150 friends prevented them from having sufficient power to fully test these effects.
To really get to the bottom of all this, researchers should be asking what happens to cortisol levels (and subjective stress and wellbeing) when people are disconnected from Facebook for much longer periods (e.g., months), the mechanisms involved, and to what extent naturally occurring cyclical patterns of Facebook activity occur (where stress from Facebook builds, users disconnect and go cold turkey, and then return as their desire to feel connected again builds).
The amounting evidence supports that taking short breaks from Facebook could be beneficial to both mental and physical health due to the significant role of stress and the HPA axis in mental and physical disorders. This is particularly beneficial for people who heavily use the platform or experience too much social comparison and envy that harms their wellbeing.
Soon, research will likely tell us how long the breaks should be and how often and under what circumstances they should occur to get the most out of being both connected and disconnected from Facebook and perhaps social media use in general. Science can’t yet say with confidence the ways that deleting facebook and the #DeleteFacebook movement could impact users health and wellbeing, but it certainly suggests taking a #FacebookBreak if your #donewithfb. Maybe consider taking a Facebook break for lent next year.
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., Shablack, H., Jonides, J., & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subject well-being in young adults. PLOS ONE, 8(8), e69841-e69841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069841
Pew Internet and American Life Project (2013). What teens said about social media, privacy, and online identity. Pew Internet. http://www.pewinternet.org/Commentary/2013/May/Focusgroup-highlights.aspx, accessed on January 5, 2017.
Tromholt, M. (2016). The Facebook experiment: Quitting Facebook leads to higher levels of well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 661-666.
Vanman, E., Baker, R., & Tobin, S. (2018). The burden of online friends: the effects of giving up Facebook on stress and wellbeing. The Journal Of Social Psychology. doi:10.1080/00224545.2018.1453467
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