We've all been there. Things are a bit slow at work, so you poke around on social media, and next thing you know a half hour of your life has gone by that you'll never get back. You're mad at yourself for a while about the time you've wasted, but when you need another distraction you're right back at it again.
The recidivism rate for Facebook, in particular, is amazingly high when you consider the toll the site takes on user well-being. Maria Konnikova at the New Yorker recently surveyed the emotional evidence: it's pretty bleak. Using Facebook can make us jealous of others (we get it, your vacation and/or baby is incredible), can make us feel lonelier (especially when it's not used to increase face-to-face contact), and can make us downright unhappy.
Still, it doesn't seem to sink in that Facebook dampens our mood. If people did draw this conclusion, it's hard to see how the site would remain as popular and ubiquitous as it is. Ironically, this failure persists despite the fact that we often read about such studies directly via Facebook; Konnikova's piece has more than 22,000 shares to date.
Behavioral researchers Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, recently tried to identify the source of this disconnect. First, in keeping with previous research, the researchers established that Facebook has negative emotional side effects. That wasn't tough. Test participants who had used Facebook for 20 minutes reported being in a worse mood than those in two other test groups (one browsed the Internet, one served as a control and did nothing); the Facebook participants also felt their time had been used in a less meaningful way.
Amid the wreckage, Sagioglou and Greitemeyer spotted a clue for why we go back: we think we'll enjoy it. In a separate experiment, they asked test participants to guess whether spending 20 minutes on Facebook would make them feel better or worse. Contrary to the findings of the earlier experiment, in which using Facebook put people in a worse mood, participants expected that using Facebook would make them feel better.
"Users seem to wrongly predict the emotional impact of using Facebook," Sagioglou tells Co.Design. "It seems likely that users are not aware of the mood-decreasing effects."
What's happening, the researchers believe, is a classic failure of "affective forecasting" —the ability to predict a future emotional state. Over the years, psychologists have found that people are terrible at guessing how they'll feel in the future. They tend to overestimate how unhappy they'll be after negative events (breaking up with a partner or losing a job) as well as how happy they'll be after positive ones (seeing their team win or even hitting the lottery).
On top of that, people are especially prone to making an affective forecasting error when they base their emotional prediction on an atypical experience. So Facebook users who recall a pleasant time they had on the site are likely to expect a pleasant time on their next visit—even if that previous event was an emotional outlier. In Facebook world, this misremembering might be a common occurrence, given that most users think their last experience with the site was positive:
So why do Facebook users remember (and thus expect) a pleasant experience but actually have a negative one? The source of the divide may come down to the type of engagement people have with Facebook. Behavioral researchers are starting to distinguish between active Facebook use, such as posting on a wall, and passive use, such as scrolling through profiles or news feeds. The difference could be what separates most positive Facebook experiences from the negative ones.
The work of Sagioglou and Greitemeyer revealed a similar effect. Participants who spent 20 minutes with Facebook felt as if they'd wasted their time, and left in a worse mood than other test participants who simply browsed the Internet or did nothing. But when the researchers controlled for the meaningfulness—in other words, when they removed "wasted time" from the equation—Facebook no longer had a negative impact on a user's mood. In fact, meaningful activity even slightly enhanced emotional well-being.
"Our latest data shows that it is indeed the passive browsing that is rated especially meaningless, while communicating on Facebook has no such negative effects," Sagioglou says. "Basically, it is passive consumption of other people's information that is considered a waste of time and thereby lowers our mood. Less of that thus seems advisable."
Simply put, not all Facebook interactions are created equal. Sometimes users waste half an hour, scrolling mindlessly through pages, and feel bad about it. Other times they actively engage with old far-flung friends, making plans to meet up or exchanging notes, and feel great. In that light, the trick to an enjoyable Facebook experience is not necessarily to avoid Facebook: it's to make each use as meaningful as possible.