Right after the election, I did something I’d been wanting to do for a long time—I deleted my Facebook account. Noticing my absence, friends and family asked me why. The truth is, Facebook hadn’t made me happy for a long time. In fact, it actually stressed me out to look at it. What to post, what not to post. Who to stay friends with and who to let go. It just didn’t make me feel good. And it turns out there might be a scientific explanation for that.
Morten Tromholt of the University of Copenhagen conducted a study of 1,095 people in Denmark. For half of them, the task was simple (in theory): quitting Facebook for one week. The control group continued using Facebook as usual.
Of the 1,095 participants, 94 percent said they visit Facebook daily, 78 percent use Facebook for 30 minutes or more daily and 86 percent browse the news feed “often” or “very often.”
Before and after the study, Tromholt asked them to rate their life satisfaction. Those that were able to stay off of Facebook for the week reported significantly higher life satisfaction than the control group than they did before their Facebook-free week began.
On a scale of 1 to 10, both the control group and the group that quit Facebook rated their life satisfaction at a little above 7.5 before the study started. Afterward, the group that had continued to use Facebook rated their satisfaction about the same, but those who quit rated it at a 8.12.
On the last day of the experiment, Tromholt asked both groups to rate their happiness, worry and life enjoyment, among other feelings. He found that people who had taken a break from Facebook were happier, less worried, less sad and enjoyed life more than the ones who had continued to use like they normally would. People who had taken a break were also more socially active in their real lives and more satisfied with their social lives. They also felt like they wasted their time less and were more present in the moment.
“People are not aware that using Facebook has negative consequences on well-being—in fact, many people believe that Facebook is something great—(so it) gives them no reason to quit,” Tromholt said to Rewire. “And in addition, Facebook has so many functions in people’s everyday life that quitting Facebook may reduce people’s social life IRL (in real life).”
Why? Tromholt thinks this is the effect of social comparison—comparing ourselves to our friends’ online personas as we scroll through our news feeds. And “personas” are really what they are; nobody is able, or willing, to accurately convey their real lives on their social media accounts. (You’ve probably posted a bunch of smiling selfies with your significant other, but when was the last time you posted about your dust-ups over who should take out the trash? Exactly.)
Of the participants in Tromholt’s study group, 61 percent prefer to post their “good sides” to Facebook and 69 percent prefer to post pictures of the “great things” they experience. Tromholt blames social comparison—or Facebook envy—for Facebook users being 39 percent more likely to feel unhappier than their friends.
This Facebook envy stresses us out, Tromholt found. Five out of 10 participants reported they envy the amazing experiences of others posted to Facebook; 1 of 3 envy how happy other people seem on Facebook; and 4 of 10 envy the apparent success of others on Facebook. And Facebook users are 55 percent more likely to feel stressed, he found.
When you quit Facebook, Tromholt said, “the quality of information—and other peoples’s self-presentation—is adjusted to a more realistic level (and) people’s self-esteem is less ‘challenged.'”
“It surprised me the most that the participant’s well-being was affected significantly just by quitting one single social networking site,” he said. “And for only one week. I wonder what would happen if people quit Facebook for longer periods of time—and what would happen if people quit other social networking sites in addition. I think that the well-being would increase even more.”
Facebook has become such a pervasive institution—along the lines of having a social security number or a bank account—that getting out of it is actually considered an oddity or cause for concern, at least in my circles. Besides, having an active Facebook account is almost necessary to have a career in 2016. So my profile came back only a couple weeks after going dark. But I now have some cold, hard evidence to show off the next time someone asks me why I keep my online persona at an arm’s length.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.