When Facebook Came Calling…November 4th, 2021 · 14 comments
When I give interviews about the potential harms of social media, I often tell a story from early in my career as a professor. In this tale, I was walking across the campus of a well-known university, on my way to give a talk to a student group about stress and academic success. I was escorted by a professor involved with the school’s student mental health clinic.
As we chatted, she casually mentioned an interesting development they’d noticed at the clinic. A few years earlier, seemingly all at once, the number of students they served significantly increased. Even more curious, the students all seemed to be suffering from the same cluster of previously-rare anxiety-related issues.
I asked her what she thought explained this change.
She responded without hesitation: “smartphones.”
As she then elaborated, the first classes to arrive on campus already immersed in the phone-enabled world of social media and ubiquitous connectivity were suddenly and more notably anxious than those who had come before.
I’ve been involved in many public discussions and debates on the promises and perils of network technologies in the years that have elapsed since that fateful conversation. I even ended up writing a bestselling book on the topic. Throughout this whole period, however, that story I first heard as a young professor stuck with me.
Which is why I was fascinated when, earlier today, a colleague of mine at Georgetown pointed me toward a new paper, co-authored by a trio of researchers from Stanford, MIT, and the Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, that argues that the experience described to me so many years earlier might have actually been quite common.
This paper, titled “Social Media and Mental Health,” leverages an ingenious natural experiment. When Facebook first began to spread among college campuses in the first decade of the 2000s, its introduction was staggered, often moving to only a few new schools at a time. (I still remember when Facebook arrived at Dartmouth during my senior year in 2004. It was a big event.)
The authors of this paper connect a dataset containing the dates when Facebook was introduced to 775 different colleges with answers from seventeen consecutive waves of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a comprehensive and longstanding survey of student mental health.
Using a statistical technique called difference in differences, the researchers quantified changes in the mental health status of students right before and right after they were given access to Facebook. Putting aside for now some technical discussion about how to properly obtain robustness from such analyses, the authors summarize their results as follows:
“Our main finding is that the introduction of Facebook at a college had a negative effect on student mental health. Our index of poor mental health, which aggregates all the relevant mental health variables in the NCHA survey, increased by 0.085 standard deviation units as a result of the Facebook roll-out. As a point of comparison, this magnitude is around 22% of the effect of losing one’s job on mental health.”
They go on to elaborate that the condition driving the results are “primarily depression and anxiety-related disorders.”
There are many other interesting findings described in this paper. The authors note, for example, that academic performance also suffered after the introduction of Facebook. As a placebo check, they then looked at physical health, which shouldn’t be impacted by the arrival of social media, and found, as expected, that Facebook’s arrival didn’t impact this variable.
I recommend that you read the full paper for more details. But for now, I’m both pleased and dismayed to learn that the story that originally helped pique my interest in the topic of social media and mental health so many years earlier was indeed a warning sign for what was to come.