To like or not to like



07, Feb 2017

Another study on another subset of Facebook activities has concluded that overall, the social media site negatively impacts people’s health. This reinforces the observation that it remains hard to conclusively say if Facebook is beneficial or detrimental to health. However, researches over time revealed patterns on who tends to be worse off after using Facebook. Facebook as a research tool or marketing platform also presents unique challenges and opportunities.

What has a recently-published study on Facebook found?

About the study

  • The abstract acknowledges the positive power of face-to-face interactions. It goes on to describe the study’s intent to analyze how interactions on Facebook influenced a person’s well-being.
  • The study was longitudinal – the same 5,800 subjects with an average age of 48 who exhibited varying levels of Facebook activity were periodically observed over three time periods (2013, 2014 and 2015) – and investigated relations between activity on Facebook and self-reported health (physical as well as mental on a scale of 1 to 4), self-reported life satisfaction (on a scale of 1 to 10), body mass index (BMI).


  • Overall, the study found that Facebook activity seemed to negatively impact a person’s well-being and the effects were comparable to or exceeded the positive influences of offline communications.
  • Activities such as “liking” others posts, clicking on links friends had posted and updating status were noticeably reflected in the self-evaluations of physical and mental health and life satisfaction; those who indulged in more of these activities reported poorer health and lesser life satisfaction. The results showed consistency whenever the analysis was done and varied in accordance with the frequency of Facebook activity.
  • As the links were shown to grow over time, researchers reportedly put forth two possibilities – people in a poorer state of health may seek out Facebook and that in doing so, may worsen their condition.
  • Whereas with BMI, researchers found that people with higher BMI may exhibit more activity on Facebook but this not mean Facebook caused higher BMI.
  • Researchers also inferred a possible trade-off between online and offline relationships.

Why is it hard to form a conclusive opinion on Facebook?

  • While what one does on Facebook is a reflection of their mental state, the variety of activities one can perform on Facebook and variations in behavior complicate the situation. “What makes it complicated is that Facebook is for lots of different things — and different people use it for different subsets of those things. Not only that, but they are also changing things, because of people themselves changing,” said psychologist Samuel Gosling.“It may be that the same thing people find attractive is what they ultimately find repelling”
  • Studies focus on different aspects of Facebook activity. While some earlier studies tended to classify Facebook users as active and passive to generalize the impact, others show this does not necessarily hold good.
  • Some consider Facebook a source of distraction for today’s youngsters; others opine it’s a symptom.

Thomas Valente, a professor of preventive medicine, who was not among the researchers of the study summarized earlier said, “The “sweet spot” for any person’s social media use may depend on many factors, including personal traits like age. I really applaud these authors for doing this work, [but] there’s a lot of work [yet] to be done trying to understand the effects of social networking sites specifically and social media in general

When else have such studies been conducted?

Several studies on Facebook have been conducted – sociologists, psychologists and even criminologists have found it a topic of interest.

  • In 2013, researchers from the University of Cambridge came up with an app that determined the psychological characteristics of users by examining their ‘likes’. 58,000 volunteers participated and researchers were able to infer specific traits such as political views, ethnicity, sex, age, intelligence, emotional maturity, sexual orientation, happiness, drug use with a significant accuracy rate. The conclusion:You are what you like.
  • In 2013, researchers from the University of Michigan messaged college participants for five times a day over a period of two weeks to see how the social network influenced their moods. The study concurred with earlier findings by similar research that Facebook made people depressed. The same researcher collaborated with other labs to conduct a more detailed study. They found active users’ moods unchanged while passive users – who merely browsed through happy memories of others and read what others said without saying anything in return – were found to be impacted negatively.
  • A study published last year suggested that a large network of friends made by accepting (not initiating) more friend requests on Facebook – when it promoted offline social activities and enabled fulfilling connections in the real world – was associated with lower risk of mortality. 12 million Facebook users and non-users born between 1945 and 1989 were compared by the study. The conclusion: Mortality risk is lowest for those with high levels of offline social interaction and moderate levels of online social interaction. Researchers acknowledged various limitations including the possibility of limited generalization; that correlation does not imply cause; focus only on California where access to cause of mortality could be availed through public vital records.

Where does Facebook stand in relation to other social networks?

  • According to market research company eMarketer’s data for 2016, Americans spent more than 50 percent of their social networking time on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg had estimated last year that people around the world gave more than 50 minutes of their day to Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.
  • Facebook’s strength is video engagement through mobile as this increases its audience and brings in the dollars from advertisers.Competition from other apps like Snapchat and its own Instagram however, is likely to hurt Facebook. Between 2013 and 2018, mobile time spent on Facebook will grow 12.9%, whereas desktop and laptop time spent on Facebook will decline 7.5%, said eMarketer.
  • As of the first three months of 2016, 80 percent of active users worldwide had liked some post in the past month. Facebook, a market leader as of September 2016, showed off an active user count of 1.7 billion.One-fourth of the world population is on Facebook.
  • 54 percent of Facebook users watched a video, 47 percent read an article, 47 percent messaged a friend on a 1-to-1 basis, and 46 percent read a news story.Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger stood second and had about one billion active users in the measured period. 90 percent of users said they had used Messenger for their messages in the last month, nearly 50 percent used it to send photos and 35 percent sent stickers.
  • Valente, who studies health-promotion programs, highlighted a crucial benefit – people with rare diseases could use social media and social networks to form a support system and obtain access to information hard to procure offline.

Who should not use Facebook?

Research has not yet built enough evidence to say conclusively that any specific group completely avoids Facebook. However, findings overlap on the nature of its impact for certain activities and groups.

  • “Facebook depression” is said to be common in teens spending a lot of time on social media sites such as Facebook. It was coined by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011. Researchers reviewed previous studies on Facebook depression and in an article published last year, said quality, frequency and type of interactions were instrumental factors. They also said gender and personality traits – women and people with personality disorders are more vulnerable – played a role.
  • KidSafe Foundation, an NGO founded by a team of Child Safety Experts, Mental Health Professionals, and educators among others highlighted the risks of unsupervised use of Facebook by children – exposure to real life threats, child predators and cyber bullies. It strongly recommended that if at all children were to use Facebook; parents need to monitor their activity and set firm boundaries till the child was fairly mature enough to recognize a threat.

How should you ideally use FB?

For individuals, Valente says, “Without conclusive evidence for or against Facebook's health-improving abilities, the best route for now is probably moderation and self-awareness”.

As a research tool

  • The relatively diverse population on Facebook provides more robust samples – a requirement for social science-driven research which is often constrained by small, student and WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) samples.
  • It also accommodates different methods of sample gathering depending on the requirement – snowball sampling, in which researchers get Facebook participants recruit their friends to participate in the study and targeted advertising, in which researchers zero in on an exclusive audience.
  • Challenges for researchers include having a harder time “connecting” with the participants as there is no face-to-face contact; language and cultural barriers; not having control of the situation and other activities of participants; and rushed responses.
  • Foremost are ethical considerations – ideally, researchers need to ensure they have the informed consent of participants and even then, have a responsibility to the data they collect. But the scenarios in real life are posing challenging questions.
  • Facebook set up an IRB in response to the tremendous backlash to its 2014 research in which users’ moods were manipulated without their consent. An IRB or Institutional Review Board ideally consists of a group of independent professionals who investigate research proposals and attempt to determine if they are ethical.But as of 2016, the five members were anything but “independent” – they were Facebook employees. Further, individual researchers have the power to refuse to submit their studies for an IRB review. This creates new loopholes such as non-nonpartisan reviews and highlights the severe shortcomings of the existing system of IRBs.

For business

Businesses find various advantages in having their own Facebook page.But as every other competitor begins to do the same, the challenges become stronger.

These are certain dos and don’ts for effectively using Facebook for Business.

  • An identifiable profile picture which registers the brand’s message in the minds of viewers is an essential asset. This also helps fans find the page faster and like it.
  • An informative “About” section clarifies doubts and provides information a viewer usually looks for.
  • Coordinating the cover photo, pinned post and profile call-to-action (CTA) should be an essential part of the marketing strategy.
  • Regulate publishing settings for different employees to ensure that relevant and effective content is published.Relevance of the content takes priority over frequency of posting.
  • Harness Facebook’s targeting tools to address a specific audience through unpaid posts as well.
  • Analyze the page performance through tracking tools to filter out what fails to achieve the desired audience. Use the power of visual content and post at a time the viewership is likely to be high.
  • Prompt response makes a difference. Boost the power of successful unpaid content by using it in your paid ads.
  • Understand that copy-paste of strategies may lead to failure.

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Tags | Social Media