The Surprising Power of Facebook Comments—According to Science

Step away from the Like button: You’ve got to actually type something for your message to be meaningful.

Photo by Courtesy of Facebook

The next time you’re debating posting a note to a friend’s Facebook timeline or commenting on a cute Instagram of her kids, just do it: A new study suggests that receiving social-media messages from loved ones can have a significant impact on a person’s feelings of well-being and satisfaction with life—as much, in fact, as getting married or having a baby might have(!).

But in order for your interaction to mean something, you’ve got to put a bit of effort into it: a one-click “Like” or “Poke” just won’t cut it, say the study authors.  

“We’re not talking about anything that’s particularly labor-intensive,” Moira Burke, Ph.D., a research scientist at Facebook, said in a press release. “This can be a comment that’s just a sentence or two. The important thing is that someone such as a close friend takes the time to personalize it.”

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This simple act of communication can remind recipients of the meaningful relationships in their lives, Burke added.

The study, published by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, analyzed Facebook behavior and survey responses from 1,910 participants in 91 countries over the course of several months. By relying on Facebook data logs, the researchers were able to distinguish between types of activity—passive reading, likes, pokes, and comments—as well as which interactions came from close friends versus casual acquaintances. (Most previous studies have lumped together all time spent on social media.)

That distinction was important: The researchers concluded that receiving 60 or more comments from close friends within 30 days was associated with improvements in measures such as happiness, loneliness, depression, and life satisfaction. Although these increases were modest, they were as large as those associated with some major life events (like marriage and pregnancy) also reported by study participants.

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Those 60 comments, however, had to be “targeted, composed text,” the study authors wrote. Participants did not get the same mood boost from receiving one-click interactions or from reading generic broadcasts of social news (“We’re thrilled to announce we’re expecting!”) from those close to them. Comments also didn’t mean as much if they came from people with whom they had weak social ties.

These findings contradict many previous studies that have linked social media usage with a greater likelihood of loneliness and depression. But, the authors say, these studies were not able to show which came first—whether social media affects happiness, or whether unhappy people simply tend to use social media more. 

“This suggests that people who are feeling down may indeed spend more time on social media, but they choose to do so because they’ve learned it makes them feel better,” Burke said. “They’re reminded of the people they care about in their lives.” While the authors still can’t definitively say that one thing (Facebook interactions with close friends) leads to another (happiness), they do believe their research comes closer to establishing a causal relationship than one-time surveys have in the past.

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“It turns out that when you talk with a little more depth on Facebook to people you already like, you feel better,” says co-author Robert Kraut, Ph.D., a professor in Carnegie Melon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. And really, he adds, that’s not so surprising: It’s what happens when we talk in person, or in print, as well.

“A simple ‘happy birthday’ or pre-printed card from a close friend is nice, but a longer message is even better,” he says, noting that when he recently received lots of one-line birthday messages from Facebook contacts who’d been prompted by the site’s automatic reminders, “I only responded to the longer ones from people I cared about.”

There may be another reason to send your friends personalized messages, as well: Kraut says that some of his research suggests that doing so can benefit the giver as well as the receiver—although he admits it would be difficult to disentangle the feelings of well-being that might cause a person to send such correspondences from the feelings that sending them might bring about.