New Study Suggests Facebook May Actually Improve Your Mental Health

The review found no evidence linking Facebook to psychological harm, but it's more complicated than that.

A major new scientific study is looking to turn the popular notion of social media stalwart Facebook being bad for your mental health on its head.

Researchers at the world-renowned University of Oxford’s Internet Institute studied individuals in 72 countries for over 12 years and say they found no evidence linking Facebook usage to poor mental well-being. On the contrary, the report argues it may have discovered “quite the opposite.”

In challenging the popular link between social media platforms like Facebook and psychological distress, the two principal researchers – Professor Andrew K. Przybylski and Professor Matti Vuorre – explain their methodology as relating data surrounding Facebook adoption to responses to benchmark mental well-being questions over time.

Is Facebook Actually Good For Mental Health?

In the full study published on the Royal Society website, the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) researchers reveal that they measured mental health sentiment based on data from the Gallup World Poll Survey. The internationally recognized annual study asks respondents things like, “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” as well as if they experienced more negatively associated feelings like “worry”, “sadness”, or “stress.”

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This was then compared to global user base data provided by Facebook for the years 2008 to 2019, during which adoption of the platform spiked massively. The idea here is that if Facebook usage had a genuinely negative impact of people’s mental health, this would be reflected by a noticeable increase in negative sentiment in the Gallup over the same period.

Instead, Professor Przybylsk says the analysis “indicates Facebook is possibly related to positive well-being” – though he makes clear this an anecdotal suggestion, not empirical evidence.

“We found no evidence suggesting that the global penetration of social media is associated with widespread psychological harm” – Principal Researchers, Vuorre and Przybylski

“This is not to say this is evidence that Facebook is good for the well-being of users. Rather, the best global data does not support the idea that the expansion of social media has a negative global association with well-being across nations and different demographics,” he explains in an OII statement.

The Problem With the OII’s Study

While the study claims to offer the first empirical evidence that Facebook usage is not overtly linked with a decline in mental health, there are a number of caveats worth mentioning here.

First and foremost, the two data sets – while substantial – are separate, and therefore their findings are not inextricably linked. While the study relates reliable information in a compelling manner, it is impossible to prove a “cause and effect” relationship between the two. Given how complex a phenomenon mental health is, it therefore seems unwise to assume any cast iron conclusions from the study.

If you were being hyper-critical, you could say the OII study is notable for what it doesn’t prove, rather than what it does.

In addition, the researchers admit that “the observed associations were small and did not reach a conventional 97.5% one-sided credibility threshold in all cases”, and that “in the United States, 13- to 17-year-olds are more likely to use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat than Facebook, so the user base of Facebook now consists of relatively more older individuals”.

However, despite these caveats, previous research has aligned in some ways. For example, Stanford University found that deactivating Facebook could negatively impact mental health in some individuals, in 2019. 

Social Media Concerns Aren’t Going Away

It’s impossible to try and judge overall social media trends by a single platform. As much as anything, Facebook is a very different beast to newer platforms like Instagram and TikTok, which are much more visual than Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has ever been.

Visual content has been found by a number of prominent psychological studies, such as the Psychology of Popular Media Culture, to result in a higher level of toxic self-comparisons and the pursuit of unrealistic ideals, in turn leading to social anxiety and self-image mental health issues.

It’s one reason many people find it beneficial to hide Like counts on Instagram, as well as perhaps why there’s still such a demand for text-first platforms like Threads and X. Even if social media isn’t single-handedly responsible for torpedoing international morale, there seems to be little doubt it’s a double-edged sword for many users.

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Written by:
James Laird is a technology journalist with 10+ years experience working on some of the world's biggest websites. These include TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, Lifehacker, Gizmodo and The Sun, as well as industry-specific titles such as ITProPortal. His particular areas of interest and expertise are cyber security, VPNs and general hardware.
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