Is Digital Media Pulling Us Apart?

By Matthew Gentzkow

Posted on May 20, 2020


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“Facebook has 2.3 billion monthly active users, and by 2016 the average user was spending nearly an hour per day on Facebook and its sister platforms. There may be no technology since television that has so dramatically reshaped the way we get information and spend our time.”
- Matthew Gentzkow, Professor of Economics at Stanford University

 

Facebook: What’s Not To Like?

 

Within the span of a decade, social media has woven its way deep into our lives. Facebook has 2.3 billion monthly active users, and by 2016 the average user was spending nearly an hour per day on Facebook and its sister platforms. There may be no technology since television that has so dramatically reshaped the way we get information and spend our time.

 

Early on, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were hailed for their potential to make communication and the sharing of information easier. Now, the conversation is dominated by potential harms, from addiction to depression to political polarization. Despite the abundance of speculation about the potential effects of social media, hard evidence remains scarce.

 

Editor’s Note: the following references a study and resulting paper, “The Welfare Effects of Social Media,” by Professor Matthew Gentzkow and his colleagues, Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, and Sarah Eichmeyer.

 

In a recent paper, we provide a large-scale randomized evaluation of the welfare impacts of Facebook, the largest social media platform. This provides the largest-scale experimental evidence to date on Facebook’s impact on a range of outcomes. We find that deactivating Facebook for one month leads people to spend more time with friends and family.

 

It also leaves them less informed about the news, less polarized in their political opinions, and a little happier and more satisfied with their lives. We find that after the time off Facebook, users want it back, but they use it significantly less than before their one month “detox”. Our findings are in line with other important work on the same topic (see, for example, “The Economic Effects of Facebook” and “Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime”).

 

Study Design

 

We recruited 1,600 US Facebook users online and randomized them into a “deactivation” and a “control” group. The deactivation group received US$102 in exchange for staying off Facebook for the four weeks leading up to the US midterm election in November 2018; the control group kept using Facebook as usual.

 

We measured a suite of outcomes using text messages, surveys, emails, and administrative voting records. We recorded key measures twice – once in October, before the beginning of the deactivation period, and once in November, after the deactivation period had concluded. We then compared the changes in those outcomes in the deactivation group to those in the control group.

 

To verify deactivation, we repeatedly pinged subjects’ public Facebook URLs. These return a valid page when an account is active but return an error message when an account is deactivated. Overall, 90 percent of users in the treatment group followed our instructions and deactivated their accounts.

 Figure 1: Polarization

Figure 1 shows how Facebook deactivation reduced polarization on a range of measures, including views on policy issues such as immigration and policing. The dashed lines show the distribution of these views among control-group Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red).

 

The solid lines represent the treatment group. In both groups Democrats’ views are well to the left of Republicans’ views, but the inter-party differences are visibly smaller in the treatment group, suggesting that deactivation moderated views in both parties.

 

Key Findings

 

Being off Facebook freed up an average of one hour to spend on other activities. How people use this extra time helps us understand which activities Facebook is crowding out, and this in turn tells us something about Facebook’s effects. If Facebook time just replaces other social media or similar digital activities, the effects of deactivation might be small. If it replaces high-quality social interaction with family and friends, we might worry more about outcomes like (un)happiness, loneliness, and depression. If it replaces consumption of high-quality news sources, we might worry more about impacts on political knowledge and polarization.

 

“Deactivating Facebook for one month leads people to spend more time with friends and family. It also leaves them less informed about the news, less polarized in their political opinions, and a little happier and more satisfied with their lives.”

 

Our findings show that Facebook does not substitute for other digital activities - if anything, people spend less time on other social media and digital platforms when their Facebook accounts are deactivated. Instead, Facebook time comes entirely from offline activities including face-to-face socializing and solitary activities like watching TV.

 

Our next set of findings focuses on news knowledge and political outcomes. Deactivating Facebook caused a significant reduction in total news consumption, and significantly reduced news knowledge and political engagement. Among other things, we find that subjects in the deactivation group were much worse at answering quiz questions about current issues in the news. At the same time, the deactivation group ended up significantly less polarized by a range of measures, including their views on policy issues such as immigration and policing.

 

In terms of well-being, we find that Facebook deactivation causes small but significant increases in self-reported individual life satisfaction and happiness, and significant decreases in self-reported levels of anxiety. We also elicited self-reported well-being using daily text messages, and find positive, though less precise effects of Facebook deactivation on this outcome. As shown in Figure 2, an index of all measures together shows that deactivation caused significant improvements in overall well-being.

 

Finally, we measured whether deactivation affected people’s demand for Facebook after the study was over, as well as their opinions about Facebook’s role in society. As the experiment ended, participants assigned to the deactivation group reported planning to use Facebook much less in the future. Several weeks later, the treatment group’s reported usage of the Facebook mobile app was about 11 minutes (22 percent) lower than in control.

 

Big Picture

 

There is no question that many users perceive the benefits of Facebook to be large. A majority of participants would require a payment of $100 or more to deactivate Facebook for a month. Even after a four-week “detox,” these valuations remained high and our participants continued to spend substantial time on Facebook every day. The results on news consumption and knowledge suggest that Facebook is an important source of 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.

 

At the same time, our results also make clear that the downsides are real. We find that four weeks without Facebook improves subjective well-being and substantially reduces post-experiment demand, suggesting that forces such as addiction 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, consistent with the concern that social media have played some role in the recent rise of polarization in the US.

 

The trajectory of views on social media - with early optimism about great benefits giving way to alarm about possible harms - is a familiar one. Innovations from novels to TV to nuclear energy have had similar trajectories. Along with the important existing work by other researchers, we hope that our analysis can help move the discussion from simplistic caricatures to hard evidence, and provide a sober assessment of the way a new technology affects both individual people and larger social institutions.

 Figure 2: Effect on subjective well-being

Each point in Figure 2 measures the effect of Facebook deactivation on well-being outcomes, measured in standard deviations. The lines to the left and right of each point indicate the 95 percent confidence interval. All outcomes are scaled so that the right of the figure indicates more positive outcomes. (Thus, measures of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and boredom are inverted.) The final row shows an index of all measures together, showing that deactivation caused significant improvements in overall well-being.

 

Find Out More:

 

Matthew Gentzkow’s paper “The Welfare Effects of Social Media,” written with Hunt Allcott, Luca Braghieri, and Sarah Eichmeyer, was published in American Economic Review (Vol. 110, No. 3, March 2020).

 

Matthew Gentzkow is Professor of Economics at Stanford University. Previously at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, he was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 2014. Read about his research at: gentzkow.people.stanford.edu.

 


The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Matthew Gentzkow, and by the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT). “Is Digital Media Pulling Us Apart?” was originally published in TNIT’s April 2020 newsletter.


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