By David Z. Morris
December 16, 2017

Two of Facebook’s in-house social scientists acknowledged in a blog post yesterday that passive consumption of content on the social network can harm users’ mood and mental health. But, they say, actively interacting on Facebook – especially directly with close friends – can actually improve people’s well-being.

The post’s authors, Facebook Direct of Research David Ginsberg and Research Scientist Moira Burke, said that recent findings blaming rising social alienation, anxiety and depression on social media are “compelling.”

Moreover, they highlighted experiments and studies showing that specific activities produced negative effects. Students assigned to passively read Facebook for 10 minutes reported worse moods than those directed to post themselves, or to communicate with friends.

Another study found that users who clicked more ‘likes’ and links on Facebook reported a reduced sense of their own mental health. Both phenomena, Ginsberg and Burke write, might be the consequence of users comparing their own lives to the idealized versions posted to social media by others.

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But Burke’s own research has found that “sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions [are] linked to improvements in well-being,” including reduced levels of depression and loneliness. One-to-one interactions – rather than simply posting status updates – were key to those improvements.

The company also announced a handful of new features it says are intended to encourage active, positive engagement, rather than passive consumption. That includes prioritizing news from friends in the News Feed, redesigning comments, and making it easier to filter posts from particular individuals without completely blocking or unfriending them.

Facebook should be applauded for using serious scientific inquiry to make users more healthy, and given the rising tide of criticism over its tactics and impacts, it needs to make more pro-user moves to head off regulation. The company also recently allocated $1 million to support research into child development and technology — though that’s a paltry sum, given the potential severity of the issue, Facebook’s torrent of revenue, and brand-new products specifically targeting kids.

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