Jelena Kecmanovic Ph.D.

From Science to Practice

Thinking about Taking a Break from Facebook?

A new study suggests that taking just five days off could reduce your stress.

Posted Apr 17, 2018

D K Grove/Shutterstock
Source: D K Grove/Shutterstock

A recent study revealed that taking a break from Facebook for only five days can reduce your stress, as measured by cortisol levels. If you feel very stressed and overwhelmed, quitting Facebook or other social networks for a while might be just what the doctor ordered.

“It’s like it didn't happen if it wasn’t posted on Facebook,” is a phrase I hear often from my young adult clients. Most of them talk about feeling envious of their close and not so close friends’ seemingly wonderful lives and jealous of their relationships. These feelings appear strongly related to the depression and anxiety my clients feel after frequent or prolonged Facebook use.

Facebook reported having over 1.37 billion daily active users last year, making it by far the biggest online social network. The most common motivations for using it are: relationship maintenance, passing time/relieving boredom, entertainment, and companionship. In spite of these positive motives, there is accumulating research evidence that spending time on Facebook and other social network sites might lead to negative emotional consequences. The more people use Facebook, especially passively, the more they are likely to feel worse, more depressed, and less satisfied with their lives. Two recent studies using large nationally representative surveys found that young adults and adolescent girls who use social media a lot tend to feel more socially isolated and depressed.  A possible reason for this is an increase in envy that many feel when browsing through Facebook posts of their friends.

Can these negative outcomes be reversed by taking a break from Facebook? A widely-reported 2016 Danish study of 1,095 Facebook users found that those who took a week-long break experienced more positive emotions and higher life satisfaction, compared to the ones who continued to use Facebook as usual. 

Eric Vanman and colleagues just published a study of 138 Australian Facebook users who were mostly recruited from a pool of university students. The participants came into a lab and answered questions about their perceived stress levels, mood, and life satisfaction at the beginning and at the end of a 5-week study period. Their saliva samples were also taken in order to measure cortisol level, which is a good physical marker of stress. 60 participants were randomly assigned to a 5-day Facebook abstinence group, and the others were instructed to keep using Facebook as usual. The stress level, as measured by salivary cortisol, went down after the five days in the group that took a break from Facebook. In contrast, the participants who quit Facebook for the five days reported lower life satisfaction after the break, and there were no differences on the other measures. 

Why were the results different for biological as opposed to psychological measures of stress and well-being? And why did this study find negative or no effects on the psychological measures, while the aforementioned Danish study found positive psychological effects for people who took a week-long break from Facebook? Potential explanations include: much smaller sample size and participants mostly composed of college students in the current study, or a longer break from Facebook and a higher percentage of women (86 percent vs 63 percent) in the Danish study. It is possible that students rely on Facebook more for their day-to-day social events and plans, compared to the general population. Five days would then be long enough for students to feel disconnected from their social environments, but not long enough for them to feel the full psychological benefits of reducing the social comparison and envy that lead to the negative consequences of Facebook use. It is therefore even more remarkable that the participants (mostly students) in the current study showed biological signs of decreased stress after such a short break from Facebook. Future research will be needed to clarify all the effects of taking a break from Facebook. The initial data suggests that quitting Facebook for a while might be a good thing. If you have been tempted to try, there is no time like now.

References

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, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1453467

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