A new study has linked eschewing Facebook use to lower cortisol levels, a hormone that’s associated with (among other things) stress. Considering that elevated cortisol levels in the long term can have adverse health effects, this certainly sounds like a good thing.
However, the team – led by the University of Queensland – explain that it’s a little more complicated than that. Although a few days away from Facebook does indeed lower cortisol levels, those taking a leave of abstinence also reported feeling less satisfied in general. In a slightly macabre twist, the authors suggested that returning to Facebook would make the subjects happier again.
Writing in the Journal of Social Psychology, the team explain how 138 regular Facebook-using participants (51 men, 87 women, aged 18-40) were split into two groups: one that took five days off and one that continued as per normal.
Saliva tests were taken before and after the study to detect their change in cortisol levels, which is a proxy for stress levels. At the same time, the participants’ levels of perceived stress and well-being were recorded.
“Those in the No Facebook condition experienced lower levels of cortisol and life satisfaction,” the study concluded. Those that used Facebook as normal "reported an increase of their well-being."
“Our results suggest that the typical Facebook user may occasionally find the large amount of social information available taxing, and Facebook vacations could ameliorate this stress,” the authors note, before adding: “at least in the short-term.”
As this study goes on to point out, Facebook is an “essential social tool for millions of users and it obviously provides many benefits,” and the authors suggest feeling “cut off” from it negatively impacts life satisfaction.
It’s worth noting, however, that this study wasn't just small (involving just 138 people and only two data collection points) and set over a short time period, it also contradicts the findings of two other recent studies.
A 2013 paper reported that subjective well-being ratings of Facebook users declined in the long term the more they used it; a 2016 study showed that well-being improved after a week of no Facebook. The jury, then, is still out.
Nevertheless, it's increasingly hard not to argue that, for all the undoubted good it brings, Facebook is unequivocally a source of stress for many.
Whether it’s trying to create and maintain a bespoke virtual veneer or whether you’re being bombarded with far too much (oft-conflicting) information, it can be an angst-inducing realm. Multiple pre-existing studies have linked routine social media use in general to a rise in a range of other negative psychological and even physiological afflictions, particularly among certain demographics.
If anything, seen in a wider context, this decidedly imperfect new study reminds us that it’s probably a good idea to switch off now and again, but the ubiquity of social networks may affect us long after we’ve stepped away from our black mirrors.