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Stanford researchers have recently published a research paper, “The Welfare Effects of Social Media” where they conducted an experiment to understand how Facebook affects a range of individuals focusing on US users in the runup to the 2018 midterm election.

Reducing screen time has been an important debating topic in recent times. Excess use of social media platforms hampers face-to-face social interactions. At a broader social level, social media platforms may increase political polarization and are also the primary source of spreading fake news and misinformation online.

Per the research paper, “Stanford researchers evaluated the extent to which time on Facebook substitutes for alternative online and offline activities. They studied Facebook’s broader political externalities via measures of news knowledge, awareness of misinformation, political engagement, and political polarization. They also analyze the extent to which behavioral forces like addiction and misprediction may cause sub-optimal consumption choices, by looking at how usage and valuation of Facebook change after the experiment.

What was the experiment?

In their experiment, Stanford researchers recruited a sample of 2,844 users using Facebook ads. The ad said, “Participate in an online research study about internet browsing and earn an easy $30 in electronic gift cards.

Next, they determined participants willingness-to-accept (WTA) to deactivate their Facebook accounts for a period of four weeks ending just after the election.

58 percent of these subjects with WTA less than $102 were randomly assigned to either a Treatment group that was paid to deactivate or a Control group that was not.

Results of the experiment

The results were divided into four patterns.

Substitution patterns

Deactivating Facebook freed up 60 minutes per day for the average person in the Treatment group for other offline activities such as watching television alone and spending time with friends and family.

The Treatment group also reported spending 15 percent less time, consuming news.

Political externalities

Facebook deactivation significantly reduced news knowledge and attention to politics. The Treatment group was less likely to say they follow news about politics or the President, and less able to correctly answer factual questions about recent news events. The overall index of news knowledge fell by 0.19 standard deviations. The overall index of political polarization fell by 0.16 standard deviations.

Subjective well-being

Deactivation caused small but significant improvements in well-being and self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety. The overall index of subjective well-being improved by 0.09 standard deviations.

Facebook’s role in society

The Treatment group’s reported usage of the Facebook mobile app was about 12 minutes (23 percent) lower than in Control. The post-experiment Facebook use is 0.61 standard deviations lower in Treatment than in Control.

The researchers concluded that deactivation caused people to appreciate Facebook’s both positive and negative impacts on their lives. Majority of the treatment group agreed deactivation was good for them, but they were also more likely to think that people would miss Facebook if they used it less. In conclusion, the opposing effects on these specific metrics cancel out, so the overall index of opinions about Facebook is unaffected, mentions the research paper.

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