In what is being pegged as one of the largest independent scientific studies investigating the spread of Facebook across the globe, a University of Oxford study claims on Wednesday that it found no evidence that the social media platform's worldwide penetration is linked to adverse mental health impact.
The study by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) used wellbeing data from nearly a million people across 72 countries over 12 years and harnessed actual individual usage data from millions of Facebook users worldwide to investigate the impact on wellbeing of the platform, now branded as Meta. Despite several claims about the negative psychological impact of social media on wellbeing, the research found no evidence that Facebook’s spread was consistently linked negatively to mental health.
"Although reports of negative psychological outcomes associated with social media are common in academic and popular writing, evidence for harms is, on balance, more speculative than conclusive,” the research paper notes.
Working with massive amounts of information, the Oxford team led by Professors Andrew Przybylski and Matti Vuorre did not find evidence to support popular misconceptions associated with Facebook use.
"We examined the best available data carefully – and found they did not support the idea that Facebook membership is related to harm, quite the opposite. In fact, our analysis indicates Facebook is possibly related to positive wellbeing,” said Prof. Przybylski, from the OII – a multi-disciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford dedicated to the social science of the Internet.
"This is not to say this is evidence that Facebook is good for the wellbeing of users. Rather, the best global data does not support the idea that the expansion of social media has a negative global association with well-being across nations and different demographics,” he said.
OII said Facebook was involved in the research, but only to provide data and did not commission or fund the study. They stressed that researchers from Facebook helped ensure the data was accurate, but did not influence the design of the study or know the findings before the Oxford team made the results public.
"Much of the past research into social media use and well-being has been hampered by an exclusive focus on wellbeing data in the Global North and a reliance on inaccurate self-reports of social media engagement. In our new study, we cover the broadest possible geography for the first time, analysing Facebook usage data overlaid with robust wellbeing data, giving a truly global perspective of the impact of Facebook use on wellbeing for the first time,” added co-author Prof. Vuorre.
The Oxford research project – entitled ‘Estimating the association between Facebook adoption and well-being in 72 countries’ and published by the Royal Society – started before the COVID pandemic and OII said its team worked for more than two years to secure critically needed data from Facebook.
The researchers combined existing wellbeing data from Gallup, covering nearly 1 million people from 2008 to 2019, with Facebook data relating to the global platform membership. The team was able to see how the spread of Facebook engagement related to the country-wide wellbeing data.
Facebook currently reports nearly 3 billion users worldwide, but this research looks at the earlier days of the platform’s international penetration. This period was critical because many commentators have claimed that trends in social media use and wellbeing during this period are linked.
"To better understand the plausible range of associations, we linked data tracking Facebook’s global adoption with three indicators of wellbeing: life satisfaction, negative and positive psychological experiences. We examined 72 countries’ per capita active Facebook users in males and females in two age brackets (13-34yrs and 35+years),” said the authors, who found no evidence for negative associations and in many cases, there were positive correlations between Facebook and wellbeing indicators.
Vuorre concludes: “Our findings should help guide the debate surrounding social media towards more empirical research foundations. We need more transparent collaborative research between independent scientists and the technology industry to better determine how, when and why modern online platforms might be affecting their users.”
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