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Facebook Admits Social Media Can Harm Mental Health

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Facebook has released new research suggesting social media can harm mental health when used in certain ways.

The research is discussed in an online report titled “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?”

Facebook’s director of research, David Ginsberg, wrote the report along with social psychologist Moira Burke. The two cooperated with psychology and sociology experts and mental health professionals. Several studies were used to support the findings.

Interaction has an effect on users

Facebook said research suggested that social media users who spent a lot of time only reading information – but not interacting with others – reported feeling worse afterward. Users who had interaction during the experience reported having better feelings.

In this April 28, 2015, file photo, an Associated Press staffer poses using a mobile phone to read the news from The Huffington Post on Facebook, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
In this April 28, 2015, file photo, an Associated Press staffer poses using a mobile phone to read the news from The Huffington Post on Facebook, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

The company cited a study from the University of Michigan. It found that college students chosen to only read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than those who read and posted messages or communicated with friends.

Facebook also reported a survey by the University of California San Diego and Yale. It found that people who opened at least four times as many links as average users - or who “liked” twice as many posts – reported worse mental health than average.

The report noted that some research makes a strong connection between technology use and teen depression. It said such problems may arise because mobile phones have redefined relationships, creating a state of people being “alone together.”

The researchers said some people become depressed by looking at social media profiles and posts of others and then making negative comparisons to themselves.

A study by Carnegie Mellon University suggested positive results for increased interaction. It found people who sent or received more messages and comments on their personal pages reported better improvements in social support, depression and loneliness.

A local small business attendee poses for a selfie with marketing expert Mari Smith at Facebook's Boost your Business Nashville event held at Marathon Music Works on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision for Facebook/A
A local small business attendee poses for a selfie with marketing expert Mari Smith at Facebook's Boost your Business Nashville event held at Marathon Music Works on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision for Facebook/A

Facebook said these improvements were even greater when the interactions took place with close friends and family.

An additional study suggested that stressed students were twice as likely to choose Facebook to make themselves feel better than to watch online videos or play video games.

Overall, Facebook said it is not just social media use that can affect a person’s well-being. Rather, it believes both good and bad effects can result from how the service is used.

Critics say Facebook is exploiting users

The information on the new research came shortly after two former Facebook officials strongly criticized the social media service for its harmful effects on society.

Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker – who no longer has ties to the company – accused the social media service of using methods that “exploit” human psychology.

Parker said the goal in the early days of Facebook was to find ways to take up as much of a user’s time and attention as possible. This development model, Parker claims, created an addictive system to keep people on Facebook for long periods to seek “likes” and comments from others to make them feel good.

An attendee captures the keynote speech from Facebook's director of small business Jonathan Czaja at Facebook's Boost Your Business Nashville event held at Marathon Music Works on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision
An attendee captures the keynote speech from Facebook's director of small business Jonathan Czaja at Facebook's Boost Your Business Nashville event held at Marathon Music Works on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision

Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya recently told an audience that he feels guilty for helping develop Facebook when he knew deep down that “something bad could happen.” He said he now believes Facebook and other social media services provide tools that are “ripping apart” the way humans interact in society.

He said the problems are being fueled by the basic need of people to seek ongoing feedback from others. Such feedback can actually lead to the pleasure chemical dopamine being released in the brain, he added.

Palihapitiya says he has no easy solutions for how to solve these “destroying” influences of social media. In his own life, he rarely uses Facebook and said he does not allow his children to use it. In a television interview, he did say he believes Facebook is now doing more than other technology companies to address the negative effects of social media.

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He has studied and written a lot about the harmful effects of social media.

He told an online technology conference that most major social media companies now employ “attention engineers” to help design products that are as addictive as possible.

Newport cited research suggesting social media use can break up a person’s attention throughout the day. He says evidence shows that over time, this can permanently reduce an individual’s ability to fully concentrate, possibly limiting education and job success.

He also cited research confirming that social media use can lead to loneliness, depression and anxiety. Newport urges everyone to consider quitting social media – like he has - and he provides steps for helping people do this.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on material from Facebook, the Associated Press and other sources. Hai Do was the editor.

What are your thoughts on the effects of Facebook and other social media on mental health? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

interact v. to talk or do things with other people

mood n. the way a person feels at a particular time

negative adj. bad or harmful, not wanted

positive adj. good or useful

exploit v. to get value or use from something or use in a way that helps someone unfairly

addictive adj. a strong and sometimes harmful need to regularly have or do something

pleasure n. feeling of happiness or enjoyment

concentrate v. give your full attention and thoughts to something

anxiety n. feeling or being worried or upset

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