Does social media usage really make people miserable? Fact-checking claims about the psychology of Facebook

The verdict is still out regarding the effects of Facbook use on well-being. Photo from licensed under CC0.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about Facebook, and much of the discussion has centered on Facebook’s role in politics and journalism and user privacy. But there are other discussions about Facebook’s product itself, focusing on users’ well-being and psychological health. Specifically, some political commentators are making somewhat inaccurate and exaggerated claims about the psychology of Facebook—that it’s unhealthy, making users feel depressed and/or lonely. It’s important that we think critically about this topic, so this article is devoted to fact-checking such claims.

In an article [1] and a podcast episode [2] Matthew Yglesias at Vox criticized the core functions of Facebook, claiming that Facebook is linked with poor mental health and feelings of social isolation. To his credit, Yglesias referenced a few scientific studies that systematically examined people’s well-being as a function of Facebook usage, which support his thesis. So why would people use a product that makes them feel alone and miserable? Yglesias (along with Ezra Klein and Sarah Kliff) use a crude analogy that that Facebook is like an unhealthy candy (e.g., Sour Patch Kids), which is “bad” but also “pleasurable.”[2]

But is the scientific consensus about Facebook really so one-sided? Actually, the psychological research evidence is far more mixed than Yglesias would have readers believe. There are plenty of studies showing positive associations between Facebook and well-being (rather than negative associations), while other studies find no significant effects for most people.

For example, a 2016 study out of Germany found that Facebook users scored higher on measures of life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, and social support, and were somewhat less depressed, compared to non-users.[3] A 2017 study out of Hong Kong found no evidence for “Facebook depression” in their sample, except for those who scored high in the personality trait neuroticism.[4] Only for highly neurotic individuals was time spent on Facebook linked with depressive symptoms. Another study from researchers at Singapore and the U.S. found that Facebook was linked with depression only when people felt envious of others.[5] After controlling for feelings of envy, Facebook use actually reduced depression. The authors suggested that having emotional intelligence may help people regulate envious feelings to allow for enjoyable Facebook usage.

These data, however, are correlational, so not much can be inferred about causation. But a 2012 study from researchers in Germany and the U.S. used an experimental design, in which some participants were randomly assigned to a condition where they received a daily email instructing them to post more status updates. Compared to the control group, participants in the “post more updates” group reported less loneliness over a 7-day period, and results showed that they felt more socially connected to their friends.[6]

The beneficial effects of social networking sites (SNS) may be particularly pronounced in people who are shy or have low self-esteem. These individuals may have more difficulty initiating and maintaining social connections in their lives. Facebook allows more opportunities for socially anxious people to interact with others in a more comfortable setting. Researchers Julia Brailovskaia and Jürgen Margraf claimed that, “People with a low self-esteem profit from the use of SNS by making new acquaintances and friends and satisfy their need to belong.”[3]

But doesn’t Facebook itself say that Facebook is bad? According to Yglesias, Facebook’s own people admitted that it’s bad for mental health, and the company discourages its employees from using it the way most people do. But it appears that Facebook’s commentary was more general. In a blog post, Facebook scientists said that they are in the process of studying the positive and negative effects of Facebook usage, and are working to design Facebook in a way that helps everyone consume it in a way that is healthy and beneficial.[7] I see no evidence that Facebook employees use it differently than consumers, or that Facebook discourages its employees from the way it is popularly used.

In summary, while some studies have shown negative associations between Facebook usage and well-being [8], other studies have found dramatically different results. So what’s the answer? Is Facebook good or bad for our mental health? Well, it might be a bit of both, depending on how Facebook is used. Consider the variety of activities people engage in on Facebook. Some use it for entertainment (e.g., funny memes), others use it for information (e.g., news). Some use it to connect with others they already know (friends & family), while others use it to connect with strangers. Most importantly, some Facebook usage is active, involving direct communication with others, while passive usage involves mindless scrolling and viewing content. Passive usage can be problematic for well-being, but the same cannot be said about active usage.[9] Considering the diverse types of activity people exhibit on social media sites, does it really make sense to lump them all together and make overgeneralized conclusions that Facebook is “bad”? Of course not. In fact, some researchers noted that most studies do not differentiate between the various activities people engage in on social media, and that ‘‘aggregating over’’ these activities can be problematic.[6] It doesn’t make any sense to suggest a singular harmful mechanism for Facebook consumption.

Research findings on the question of Facebook usage and well-being are (at best) mixed. One thing, however, is clear. The bold claims made by political commenters about the psychological effects of Facebook usage are exaggerated. But why are so many people convinced that Facebook is so bad for wellness? Do we have a massive misunderstanding? Some suggest that people are exhibiting a moral panic about Facebook, which may be based in superstitions about new technologies.[4] A moral panic is an extreme and exaggerated concern about something that may not be very problematic. This is why it’s so important for journalists and pundits not only to get their facts right when reporting on psychological studies, but to give their audiences the right context. We don’t want the American public (or lawmakers) to overreact, which may accidentally create additional problems.


[1] Yglesias, M. (2018). The case against Facebook. Retrieved from

[2] Lind, D., Klein, E., Yglesias, M., & Kliff, S. (2018, March 27). Is Facebook bad? Vox's The Weeds. Podcast retrieved from

[3] Brailovskaia, J., & Margraf, J. (2016). Comparing Facebook users and Facebook non-users: Relationship between personality traits and mental health variables—An exploratory study. Plos ONE11(12).

[4] Chow, T. S., & Wan, H. Y. (2017). Is there any ‘Facebook Depression’? Exploring the moderating roles of neuroticism, Facebook social comparison and envy. Personality and Individual Differences119, 277-282. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.032

[5] Tandoc, E. J., Ferrucci, P., & Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing?. Computers in Human Behavior43, 139-146. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.10.053

[6] Deters, F. g., & Mehl, M. R. (2013). Does posting Facebook status updates increase or decrease loneliness? An online social networking experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science4(5), 579-586. doi:10.1177/1948550612469233

[7] Ginsberg, D. & Burke, M. (2018). Hard questions: Is spending time on social media bad for us? Retrieved from

[8] Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., & ... Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. Plos ONE8(8).

[9] Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., & ... Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General144(2), 480-488. doi:10.1037/xge0000057