Facebook Negatively Impacted College Students’ Mental Health from the Start

Researchers track the impact of the launch and spread of Facebook in 2004 and find declining mental health in its wake.

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In a new study, social scientists Luca Braghieri, Roee Levy, and Alexey Makarin found that the initial rollout of Facebook across American college campuses negatively affected the mental well-being of students at the time. Now, more than half of the world’s population has a social media account.

During the meteoric rise of social media, the mental health of adolescent and teenage Americans has continued to worsen. While the relationship between social media and mental health remains contested, many researchers have hypothesized that the spread of social media may contribute to poor mental health. The researchers apply a novel method to tease out the connection in this new investigation.

“The early expansion of Facebook across colleges in the United States is a particularly promising setting to investigate the effects of social media use on the mental health of young adults,” the authors explain.
“Facebook was created at Harvard in February 2004, but it was only made available to the general public in September 2006. Between February 2004 and September 2006, Facebook was rolled out across U.S. colleges in a staggered fashion. Upon being granted access to Facebook’s network, colleges witnessed rapid and widespread Facebook penetration among students. The staggered and sharp introduction of Facebook across U.S. colleges provides a source of quasi-experimental variation in exposure to social media that we can leverage for causal identification.”

From 2004 to 2006, Facebook was introduced to 775 college campuses, the first of which was Harvard. The researchers compared Facebook’s nationwide release dates to 17 waves of the National College Health Assessment (NHCA). This gave the authors cause to use a difference-in-differences research design. In essence, colleges were given time-staggered access to Facebook, but the NHCA was also given to students across the nation at multiple times.

Braghieri and co-investigators could distinguish students’ NHCA results before and after a campus release of Facebook. In addition, with every college campus having its own before and after snapshot, the researchers could account for baseline mental health confounds, such as the stress level caused by an individual college campus or nationwide stress-inducing phenomena.

The authors found that their results supported their hypothesis. When Facebook was introduced to a college campus, students reported mental health problems more frequently.

This was especially true of students who were more susceptible to mental illness and was further exacerbated by the effects of social comparison. Facebook was also more harmful the longer students were exposed to it during this trial. And many students reported adverse indirect effects, such as worsened academic performance since the introduction of Facebook to their campus.

The study looked at depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, eating disorder self-reports, and usage of mental health help services. On average, after the introduction of Facebook, students were more likely to say that they felt hopeless, overwhelmed, exhausted, and seriously considered suicide. In addition, there was an increase in depression diagnoses and antidepressant usage, and students reported difficulty sleeping, eating, and focusing more frequently.

It’s worth noting that Facebook didn’t just cause mental health decline because of increased internet use. Instead, the study explains how groups of students were made to feel ostracized based on preexisting implicit beliefs. For example, students who saw themselves as comparing unfavorably to their peers exhibited the most pronounced effects of mental health strain. This included students of lower socioeconomic status, students not belonging to fraternities/sororities, and students who lived off-campus (because they were more likely to be excluded from things happening on campus).

These results, while illuminating, are historical in nature. The study looks at the version of Facebook—and a version of social media itself—that is now long gone. Today, social media does not limit itself to tightly woven communities such as college campuses. Social media, especially Facebook, is comparable to news outlets today, intentionally alerting people to ongoings outside of the bubble to which they belong.

The authors also note the caveat that their findings are based upon self-report. Self-report is a well-known and widely used measure in psychology, but it remains true that its integrity can be damaged by one’s own recall bias and willingness to share about oneself.

“Over the last two decades, Facebook underwent a host of important changes. Such changes include: i) the introduction of a personalized feed where posts are ranked by an algorithm; ii) the growth of Facebook’s user base from U.S. college students to almost three billion active users around the globe; iii) video often replacing images and text; iv) increased usage of Facebook on mobile phones instead of computers; and v) the introduction of Facebook pages for brands, businesses, and organizations. The nature of the variation we are exploiting does not allow us to identify the impact of these features of social media. For instance, our estimates cannot shed light on whether the increased reliance on Facebook for news consumption has exacerbated or mitigated the effects of Facebook on mental health. Similarly, we cannot provide evidence as to whether years of experience with the platform mitigate or exacerbate the effects on mental health.”

Considering these caveats, this study remains pressing. The connection between social media and well-being has not been fully explained. Facebook, specifically, has different effects on people depending on how it is used.

The takeaway, as intended by Braghieri and his colleagues, is important to keep in mind: Facebook is a medium for harmful social comparison. It is not unique in how it damages mental health but in how it permeates countless social spheres and influences people to weigh themselves unfavorably against others.

 

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Braghieri, L., Levy, R., & Makarin, A. (2022). Social media and mental health. (Link)

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Liam G. Bach
Liam graduated from Bard College as a Biology/Psychology double major in 2021 and has a background in ecology and art. Liam brings an interest in attending to how dominant discourses operate to construct broader social issues, including climate change and social justice efforts, as individual problems in need of individual management. He intends to pursue doctoral studies in 2022—in the meantime, he will be reading, writing, drawing, and sleeping.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Why am I not surprised? Seriously, I think I am gonna die of not surprised.

    YouTube is even worse. I remember losing my ability to function in high school because of internet bullying through YouTube, and it was all over a harmless video game. It still continues to this day; that was sixteen years ago.

  2. Social media is extremely predatory. And the amount of time young people spend pecking on their cell phones, and behind a computer screen already is physically a strain on their posture, and their neck, which I think can affect mental health. Then there are all of the myriad of other ways it can be distressing, and addictive. And the Internet in general uses volatility to get people involved, and the threads with all manner of vitriol can end up on the top of the feed. It can be quite shocking to actually read people’s thoughts online, regarding their need for dehumanizing someone or anyone in order to feel in power themselves, even safe, as if safety involves making up an enemy to constantly be fighting against.

    I found a healer that actually helped me with a miracle, and that was online. To be part of her sanctuary that sends energy is only 10 pounds a month, but around that, one finds a whole mob of healers and channels, and mediums and psychics charging thousands of dollars, and mostly working with image games knowing how to make a person feel they are being helped the same way the junk food industry, the drug companies, most Hollywood movies, and even many therapists know how to create an “atmosphere,” and con you into thinking it’s salvation.

    Thoughtmaybe.com has a whole tab for media, with all sorts of documentaries regarding these things: https://thoughtmaybe.com/topic/media/ also an advertising tab https://thoughtmaybe.com/topic/advertising/ and others tabs

    They actually test the outlay of computer screens, where the buttons are, which colors, everything you see on a webpage to see how to get people to click on where. They actually test this just to see how to play mind games with people. Lots of money goes into it. I noticed that both Facebook and Amazon make it difficult to find the logout button, and have other ways they try to distract you to get trigger happy. I really find it quite disturbing that a site can be called Amazon, and how that’s legal. Isn’t the Amazon [river] in Brazil? How is Amazon.com affecting the state of the real Amazon!? I don’t think the logos Amazon is helping to preserve the real Amazon. You ACTUALLY have this Internet site called “Amazon” and people say “Amazon” and WHAT do they think that word stands for?

    One nice thing online is buying used books. For around 3 or 4 dollars a piece, I can get incredibly beautiful old classics or modern writers with content, or books that actually inform you. And then there are sites like this one, and others that truly are informative.

    I left facebook in 2015, and only came back to it last year. I don’t know how long I’m staying this time, though…… not too long…..

    • Nijinsky says, “Social media is extremely predatory.”
      So is psychiatry.

      “…and even many therapists know how to create an “atmosphere”, and con you into thinking it’s salvation.”
      That’s pretty much all they know.

      I never joined Facebook, nor have I ever visited it. But I sensed what was coming. So I knew I wouldn’t be missing a thing.