It’s no secret that sometimes, spending time on Facebook can be a real downer. Maybe you’ve considered deleting your account for the sake of your sanity. But you don’t have to quit the social network altogether to feel better, suggests a new study. Researchers say that simply changing your behavior on the site—or taking an occasional break—may be just the mood-booster you need.
To be fair, the research on Facebook, and on social media in general, has been all over the map when it comes to mental health. Several studies have linked heavy use of these sites to loneliness and depression, while others have found that social networking can actually improve mood and satisfaction with life.
One problem, says Morten Tromholt, a sociology researcher at the University of Copenhagen, is that most of these studies have been observational; they’re only able to track people over time and find associations, not cause-and-effect relationships. So Tromhold wanted to conduct a true experiment that could suggest whether Facebook use actually leads to negative emotions (and not the other way around)—and whether changing one’s behavior could help.
To do that, he recruited more than 1,000 Danish Facebook users in late 2015, and tested them on several measures of social-media use, well-being, and life satisfaction. Then he asked half of them to continue Facebook use as normal, and half to take a one-week break.
Those on a break were encouraged to delete the Facebook app from their mobile devices. Most users complied with the digital detox rules, although—as a testament to the site’s pervasiveness (and addictiveness!)—some admitted to briefly checking in once or twice, either as a habit or because they needed information about an event.
After that week, Tromhold again assessed the mental health of all participants. He found that those in the no-Facebook group showed significant improvement in well-being, while those in the normal-use group showed no change.
Those gains varied depending on how, and how much, people normally used Facebook. People who were heavy users (as measured by the Facebook Intensity Scale), those who reported having a lot of envy while on Facebook, and those who tended to use Facebook passively rather than actively (reading and viewing, rather than posting and commenting) saw the most mental-health benefits from taking time off.
Tromhold’s final results were published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. (His preliminary findings were published in 2015.) The experiment “provides causal evidence that Facebook use affects our well-being negatively,” he wrote, and also that “taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”
Brenda K. Wiederhold, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of the journal and executive director of Virtual Reality Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium, said in a press release that this study supports previous research that has found that “lurking” on Facebook may cause negative emotions.
“However, on the bright side, as previous studies have shown, actively connecting with close friends, whether in real life or on Facebook, may actually increase one's sense of well-being,” she added.
Tromhold notes that his findings are only averages, and that studies are almost never able to determine whether one variable truly causes another. And more research is needed to see if quitting Facebook (or other social networks) for longer periods of time have the same impact—or perhaps even better impacts—on mental health, he says.
But he believes the study does provide some real lessons for Facebook users. “These findings indicate that it might not be necessary to quit Facebook for good to increase one’s well-being,” Tromhold wrote. He suggests that if you’re a heavy user, try scaling back. If you tend to feel envy when on Facebook, avoid browsing the sections (or the specific friends) that cause this feeling. And if you often use it passively, try participating a little bit more.
Of course, Tromhold added, old habits die hard, and these things may be too difficult to change. “If this is the case,” he wrote, “one should consider quitting Facebook for good.”