A couple of years ago, a group of researchers at Facebook realized that users felt worse about themselves after incessantly scrolling through their news feeds. The researchers decided to do something about it.
They surveyed Facebook users about their emotional reactions to using the social network. Those findings helped drive one of the biggest changes Facebook has made to date: Showing users more posts from friends and family rather than businesses.
The point was to increase interaction between users, whether commenting or liking posts. The more that people did so, the better they felt, the research found.
The change pushed by Facebook’s little-known well-being team is just one of many issues the group has explored. Its mission is to reduce any negative effects associated with using Facebook, a nearly ubiquitous presence in modern life.
“I came to Facebook because I wanted to have more applied impact with my research,” said Jennifer Guadagno, a research manager for the well-being team. “I felt that my academic research was a few steps more removed from directly impacting people than I personally desired.”
The research is becoming increasingly important as Facebook along with other social media services face intense criticism for exacerbating behavior like addiction and contributing to low self-esteem and loneliness. Those critiques, among a host of others like bullying on the service, are helping fuel calls for more oversight.
The team has a major challenge ahead as it aims to solve a growing conundrum within the tech industry: How to positively impact users’ lives. And over the years, various independent studies have shown that using Facebook can increase depression and make users feel less satisfied with their lives.
A study earlier this year by researchers unaffiliated with Facebook found that people who deactivated their Facebook accounts were happier and more satisfied and felt less anxious and depressed. It was in sharp contrast to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who often brags about Facebook being a critical tool for connecting the world.
“It certainly says there’s an issue there that needs to be addressed, ”said Matthew Gentzkow, a professor at Stanford University who authored the study along with three other professors.
Similarly, a study by researchers at Yale and the University of California at San Diego published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2017 suggested that the more people used Facebook, the worse their mental health and personal satisfaction.
While the criticism may be painful to hear, Facebook’s researchers said they understand it.
“The people who are critical about well-being care very much, just as we do,” said Moira Burke, research scientist who focuses on Facebook’s social science research. “We all want the same thing.”
In addition to championing the change to Facebook's news feed algorithm last year, the team has also helped Facebook create a feature for users to honor loved ones with memorial pages and another that lets users temporarily hide specific friends’ posts so they don't have to see updates from an ex-spouse, for example.
The team is also exploring how Facebook can help people who recently moved to a new city find new friends or to explore their new community. And researchers want to find ways to help people avoid feeling worse about themselves after comparing their lives to the often idealized ones of smiling babies and exotic vacations that friends invariably post.
Any suggestion the team makes to Facebook's management is only that—a suggestion. Facebook's leaders get the ultimate say about what should be adopted.
And that's the problem, suggests Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University assistant professor who has studied the problem of policing social media content. Hate speech, violent content, and harassment have become so widespread that Facebook can't keep up. And while users may complain, Facebook is under no requirement to make any changes to address those problems or any others.
"These are corporate entities, and they're accountable to their shareholders and their profits," Grygiel said. "They say that they want to help us—that they are putting processes in place to protect us—but they aren’t and don’t have the resources in place to do that."
The problem with Facebook's internal research boils down to one thing, says Grygiel: "Nothing can truly be independent when Mark Zuckerberg is the majority shareholder of the company."
The well-being team hopes it can change that impression by applying academic standards to their work, like publishing papers in well-respected peer-reviewed journals. Ultimately, the researchers say they are approaching Facebook's problems the only way they know how: as scholars.
The team loosely dates back to 2009, when Burke, who joined Facebook that year as a researcher, began exploring Facebook’s effects on its users' well-being. Since then, the team has grown to a "few dozen people," according to the company.
Many of its members have lengthy academic backgrounds. For example, Guadagno has a Ph.D. in psychology from Duke, where she studied the effect of mindfulness on well-being; Burke received her Ph.D. in human-computer interaction from Carnie Mellon University.
Facebook’s researchers define the term “well-being” as “how people perceive their lives.” Within that scope, they focus on three specific areas: unhealthy amounts of time spent on Facebook, loneliness, and declines in self-worth related to users comparing themselves to others.
“These issues are things that have a deep impact on people lives and have played out on Facebook,” Facebook's Guadagno said.
The team uses previously published academic research to aid it in its studies and has published more than 10 of its own papers based on research conducted at Facebook. The team also relies on Facebook users to serve as subjects for its studies, in some cases for months.
One study showed that people weren’t lonely because they used Facebook; rather they used Facebook when they were feeling lonely. In their findings, Facebook was a solution, not the problem.
The researchers also often team up with experts from universities, nonprofits, and other organizations. In some cases, those outsiders have embedded within Facebook to provide an independent perspective.
But the research is still incomplete considering that the long-term impact of social media is unknown. After all, Facebook has only been around for 15 years. As Facebook’s researchers learn more, they expect that company will tweak its products some more, based on new findings.
“At Facebook, we have been focused on deeply understanding the ways in which social media and technology can both improve and detract from people’s lives, and making product changes as we learn more,” said David Ginsberg, vice president of research. “Our goal, both with the research we do and the products we build, is to make sure that the quality of time people spend on the platform is meaningful.”
That message seems to have resonated with the company’s top executives.
In December, Zuckerberg highlighted the importance of the company’s effects on users' overall well-being. Last year was arguably the first time he publicly acknowledged Facebook’s focus on the matter.
“For 2018, my personal challenge has been to focus on addressing some of the most important issues facing our community -- whether that's preventing election interference, stopping the spread of hate speech and misinformation, making sure people have control of their information, and ensuring our services improve people's well-being,” he said in a post on Facebook.
Well-being also shows up in one of the company’s risk factors in last year’s annual report. Facebook said that its overall business could be harmed if users felt that the social network was negatively affecting their well-being.
“The company has always cared about well-being,” said Chandra Mohan Janakiraman, Facebook’s well-being product manager. “What’s changed is our understanding in terms of the impact our product has had.”