Will Changes to Facebook's Newsfeed Be Good for Us?

Research shows when Facebook use can be harmful or beneficial.

Posted Jan 17, 2018

khalhh at pixabay | CC License
Source: khalhh at pixabay | CC License

In a recent Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, announced changes to the information that users will see in their newsfeed. According to Zuckerberg, people will see more content that is posted by their friends and family and less professionally produced content, like news articles. In his post, he claimed that this change was motivated by research on the psychological effects of Facebook use:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos—even if they're entertaining or informative—may not be as good.

So will this change to the newsfeed make the Facebook experience more positive for people? Despite Zuckerberg's comments, the research suggests that these particular changes will not substantially impact the way that Facebook affects our psychological well-being.

Passive Facebook Use

Zuckerberg is correct that passively browsing Facebook use has been shown to have psychologically harmful effects, and that actively engaging with the site can be beneficial.1 However, much of the research on passive Facebook use does not make a distinction between different kinds of passive use. So in most of these studies, watching videos and clicking on links is grouped together with passively browsing friends' updates on the newsfeed. Zuckerberg singles out watching videos and reading articles as harmful passive use, when in fact, a large proportion of passive use involves looking at posts by family and friends.  

Several studies suggest that what actually makes passive use harmful to psychological well-being is posts from friends.1 Social media is a breeding ground for social comparison, particularly upward social comparison, where people feel that others' lives are better than their own. People see everyone's "highlight reels" on Facebook because people tend to share their positive, happy moments much more often their negative moments. Your cousin is more likely to post a picture of her son doing something adorable than of him throwing a tantrum. When we see this stream of happy families, glamorous vacations, and vibrant social lives in our newsfeed, we feel that our own lives pale in comparison.2  Those who are especially prone to compare themselves to others are likely to walk away from a Facebook browsing session feeling worse about themselves.1 And not surprisingly, passively following friends' social media communication or browsing friends' profiles tends to create feelings of envy.3

Another phenomenon that is fueled by social media is fear of missing out (FOMO).4 People are often worried that their friends are having fun without them and feel a need to keep up with others' activities on social media to ensure that they're not missing something. People who experience high levels of FOMO, not surprisingly, are more likely to compulsively check social media, including while driving or during classes. Once again, this phenomenon is fueled by posts from friends, not by news articles.

Replacing content from news providers with content from friends is not necessarily going to reduce passive use or the negative effects of Facebook. Content from friends and family still leads to social comparison and FOMO. In fact, very little of the research points to the negative effects being from reading news or watching videos from traditional media content providers.

What about the News?

There has been much concern that social media can be harmful because many people use at as a news source, where they read politically partisan content that only serves to increase political polarization and leads to the spread of "fake news." Research does show that people are more likely to see Facebook news posts from friends that reinforce their own political views.5 Presumably, reducing the amount of content that Facebook users see from traditional news sources should curb these negative effects.

However, Aja Romano at Vox points out that if friend engagement is the main driver of which news users see on Facebook, the news posts that people see from their friends are more likely to increase political polarization than content curated by news providers themselves. Only articles that are widely shared and commented on by friends will be seen in users' newsfeeds—these articles may be especially likely to be "click-bait" headlines, playing on emotions and oversimplifying complex issues. And not surprisingly, news articles that play on people's emotions also tend to increase political polarization.5

Facebook Use Isn't All Bad

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Zuckerberg is right when he says that research shows that Facebook use can improve psychological well-being. While the results are not always consistent, there is ample evidence that actively engaging with Facebook by posting content and commenting on friends' posts can be beneficial. In an excellent summary of the research on Facebook and well-being, Phillipe Verudyn and colleagues point out that there are two primary ways in which Facebook use can have these benefits. First, it can increase "social capital." Social capital refers to the social resources you have, people you can turn to for support and your ability to make new contacts and be exposed to diverse perspectives. Second, Facebook can also increase feelings of connection to other people. As I wrote about in an earlier post, receiving likes and comments from others tends to make us feel good. In general, active use is most likely to have those benefits, but passive use can sometimes have these benefits as well.1

What Does this Mean for Facebook Users?

While it is true that active engagement with social media is linked to greater well-being, passive use and its negative effects will remain as long as people are viewing content from friends and family. In fact, posts from our friends and family can fuel feelings of envy and make us feel that we don't measure up. We should not rely on a newly tailored Facebook newsfeed to shield us from this negative effects. But ultimately, Facebook use doesn't have to be a negative experience. You can choose to hide posts from people who annoy you or make you feel bad about yourself. And you can choose to participate more actively, by posting and commenting, rather than simply scrolling and liking.

References

1 Verduyn, P., Ybarra, O., R'esibois, M., Jonides, J., & Kross, E. (2017). Do social network sites enhance or undermine subjective well-being? A critical review. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11, 274-302. http://selfcontrol.psych.lsa.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/sipr12033.pdf

2 Qiu, L., Lin, H., Leung, A. K., & Tov, W. (2012). Putting their best foot forward: Emotional disclosure on Facebook. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(10), 569-572. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0200

3 Krasnova, Hanna; Wenninger, Helena; Widjaja, Thomas; Buxmann, Peter (2013). Envy on Facebook: a hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction? In: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik (WI2013). Universität Leipzig, Germany. 27.02.-01.03.201

4 Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1841–1848.

5 Van Bavel, J. J., & Pereira, A. (in press). The partisan brain: An Identity-based model of political belief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Retrieved from https://psyarxiv.com/ak642