Widespread study claims Facebook does not cause its users psychological harm

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Oxford University researchers have claimed there is no evidence to suggest that Facebook causes its users widespread psychological harm.

The study used wellbeing data from nearly a million people across 72 countries over 12 years and also harnessed individual usage data from millions of Facebook users worldwide.

“Although reports of negative psychological outcomes associated with social media are common in academic and popular writing, evidence for harms is, on balance, more speculative than conclusive,” the research paper states.

In 2017, Facebook’s director of research at the time admitted that there was evidence to suggest that scrolling through posts without interacting can leave users feeling low in mood.

But according to Professor Andrew Przybylski, leader of the new study, “the best available data” does not support the idea that Facebook membership is related to harm. “In fact, our analysis indicates Facebook is possibly related to positive wellbeing.

“This is not to say this is evidence that Facebook is good for the wellbeing of users. Rather, the best global data does not support the idea that the expansion of social media has a negative global association with wellbeing across nations and different demographics.”

Facebook was involved in the research, but only to provide data, and did not commission or fund the study. The Oxford scientists said that employees from the platform helped ensure the data was accurate, but did not influence the design of the study or know the findings before the results were made public.

The project started prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the team worked for more than two years to secure the critically-needed data from Facebook. The researchers combined existing wellbeing data from Gallup, covering nearly 1 million people from 2008 to 2019, with Facebook data relating to global platform membership.

“It was a monumental ask for the Facebook data scientists,” said Professor Przybylski. “Once they shared it with us, we were able to combine two types of data: the best wellbeing data we could put our hands on, which was already available, with Facebook data tracking the uptake of their platform in the same countries at the same times.”

Facebook currently reports nearly 3 billion users worldwide, but this research looks at the earlier days of the platform’s international penetration from 2008 to 2019.

The researchers linked data that tracked Facebook’s global adoption with three indicators of wellbeing: life satisfaction and negative and positive psychological experiences. They then examined 72 countries’ per capita active Facebook users in males and females in two age brackets (13-34 years and 35+ years) and found no evidence for negative associations.

In many cases, there were found to be positive correlations between Facebook and wellbeing indicators.

The researchers also investigated differences relating to age and gender. Their analysis showed that the association between Facebook adoption and wellbeing was slightly more positive for males than females across all wellbeing measures, but these trends were not significant.

Furthermore, Facebook adoption and wellbeing were generally more positive for younger individuals across countries. These effects were small but significant.

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