If I Give Up Facebook, How Will I Feel?

A short vacation can decrease stress but make life less meaningful.

Posted May 01, 2019

Facebook is getting criticized for how it handles our privacy, how it affects our social relationships (even our sex lives), and for ruining democracy. But how do people feel after they leave Facebook? It’s a good question, and one with two different answers.

According to a recent study by Eric Vanman and his colleagues at the University of Queensland in Australia, Facebook users who participated in a five-day experiment and turned off their Facebook showed both reduced levels of stress (as measured by cortisol) and a reduction in life satisfaction. In other words, they were less stressed but also less happy.

There is some good science to explain these patterns. For example, it has been known for a few years that our experience online using social network sites can increase or decrease mental health depending on how we interact with others. Passive reading of content is likely to contribute to lower feelings of well-being, while active use of these sites (posting, sharing photos, engaging in conversations, helping friends find services, etc.) tends to improve people’s sense of well-being. In summary, one’s mood depends if one feels like an insider and part of a community (even if that community is online) or if one feels outside the action and simply a bystander to the fun others are having.

This same connection between feeling like one belongs to a group and happiness is well-known to researchers. The quality of our social networks really does matter. Research by Anders Sønderlund and his colleagues at the University of Exeter in the UK has shown that we do best when our social groups are diverse. The more diverse the people we hang out with the higher we tend to score on something called “social identity complexity.” Higher social identity complexity is related to higher well-being. Equally interesting, it seems that the more the groups we associate with are perceived as valuable and are visible to others the more likely we will feel a general sense of contentment with our lives.

While this research by Sønderlund did not focus just on Facebook groups, it certainly helps to explain why Facebook could be both stressful and life fulfilling. After all, Facebook lets us join very diverse networks of people, exploring all sides of our personality. And these groups are visible. If they get large followings and lots of "likes" they can also be perceived as valuable. No wonder Facebook has been so successful. It taps into all our human weaknesses, and strengths, and gives us a social life around the clock. But at what cost?

Specifically, what happens when we stop using Facebook? If you are like the 138 people aged 18–40 in the Australian study, then your biological stress will go down over 5 days, even though your self-reported perceived level of stress does not. In this case, your body will know something that you won’t admit to yourself.

You are also likely to have more time to spend in face-to-face contact with friends and family, which is exactly what the no-Facebook group experienced in the Australian study. And they reported more time with a romantic partner, too. These patterns seemed to hold for people with large Facebook networks of friends (more than 150) and those with smaller groups, though those with the smallest online social networks recorded the largest decrease in stress-related cortisol.

When it comes to well-being, taking a short break from Facebook (like a cleanse!) might increase one’s subjective sense of well-being as long as the break is for just a few days. Other research suggests that as time goes on (say, two weeks), our well-being decreases steadily when we stop using online social networks like Facebook. In other words, a little vacation from social media, like any vacation, can break routine and improve our mood, but a longer break may begin to make us feel isolated and lonely.

References

Sønderlund, A. L., Morton, T. A., & Ryan, M. K. (2017). Multiple group membership and well-being: Is there always strength in numbers? Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1038. doi: 10.3389f/psycg/2017.01038

Vanman, E. J., Baker, R., & Tobin, S. J. (2018). The burden of online friends: The effects of giving up Facebook on stress and well-being. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(4), 496-507.