New Research from Matthew Gentzkow Studies People Who Quit Facebook

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on February 7, 2019


What happens if you take a break from Facebook?


According to a recent study by Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his colleagues, users willing to deactivate their Facebook account for four weeks found they had more in-person time with friends and family; less political knowledge, but also less partisan viewpoint; a slight improvement in one’s daily moods and life satisfaction; and, an extra hour a day of downtime.


“I would have expected more substitution from Facebook to other digital things — Twitter, Snapchat, online browsing,” said Dr. Gentzkow. “That didn’t happen, and for me, at least, it was a surprise.”
  - “This Is Your Brain Off Facebook” (The New York Times, January 30, 2019)


The Welfare Effects of Social Media,” by Stanford’s Matthew Gentzkow, Hunt Allcott (New York University), Luca Braghieri (Stanford University), and Sarah Eichmeyer (Stanford University), offers the largest-scale experimental evidence available to date on the way Facebook affects a range of individual and social welfare measures.


The New York Times recently published an article that shares the findings of this report. “This Is Your Brain Off Facebook” provides an overview of how the study was conducted:


The researchers — led by Hunt Allcott, an associate professor of economics at N.Y.U., and Matthew Gentzkow, a Stanford economist — used Facebook ads to recruit participants over age 18 who spent at least 15 minutes on the platform each day; the daily average was an hour, with heavy users logging two to three hours, or more.


Nearly 3,000 users agreed and filled out extensive questionnaires, which asked about their daily routines, political views and general state of mind.


Half the users were randomly assigned to deactivate their Facebook accounts for a month, in exchange for payment. The price point for that payment was itself of great interest to the researchers: How much is a month’s access to photos, commentary, Facebook groups, friends and newsfeeds worth? On average, about $100, the study found, which is in line with previous analyses.


During the month of abstinence, the research team, which included Sarah Eichmeyer and Luca Braghieri of Stanford, regularly checked the Facebook accounts of the study’s subjects to make sure those who had agreed to stay away had not reactivated them. (Only about 1 percent did.)


Summarizing the Research Results

These excerpts are from “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.”


Our results leave little doubt that Facebook produces large benefits for its users. A majority of people in our sample value four weeks of access at $100 or more, and these valuations could imply annual consumer surplus gains in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the US alone. The 60 minutes our participants spend on Facebook each day is itself suggestive of the substantial value it provides. Our results on news consumption and knowledge suggest that Facebook plays an important role as a source of (real) news and information. Our participants’ answers in free response questions and follow-up interviews make clear the diverse ways in which Facebook can improve people’s lives, whether as a source of entertainment, a means to organize a charity or an activist group, or a vital social lifeline for those who are otherwise isolated. Any discussion of social media’s downsides should not obscure the basic fact that it fulfills deep and widespread needs.


Notwithstanding, our results also make clear that the downsides are real. We offer the largest scale experimental evidence measuring a wide set of potential impacts at both the individual and societal level. We find that four weeks without Facebook improves subjective well-being and substantially reduces post-experiment demand, suggesting that forces such as addiction and projection bias may cause people to use Facebook more than they otherwise would. We find that while deactivation makes people less informed, it also makes them less polarized by at least some measures, consistent with the concern that social media have played some role in the recent rise of polarization in the US. The estimated magnitudes imply that these negative effects are large enough to be real concerns, but also smaller in many cases than what one might have expected given prior research and popular discussion.


Read the full article: “The Welfare Effects of Social Media” by Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, and Matthew Gentzkow.


Also of interest: “This Is Your Brain Off Facebook” (The New York Times, January 30, 2019).