Are We Better Off with Less Social Media? Evidence Says Yes
Whether social media is good or bad for us remains a widely contested topic. Research shows that the same social media networks that can increase voter turnout can also leave us feeling lonely and depressed. So how do we really know if social media’s benefits justify its costs? The results of a recent experiment published in the American Economic Review attempts to answer this question. Subjects took a “digital detox” — time spent away from social media — for a month leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. The study reveals the benefits of using free social media platforms may be lower than previously thought.
In their experiment, Alcott et al. examined the effects of a digital detox on four outcomes: self-assessments of well-being, alternative uses of time spent away from social media, political polarization, and post-detox behavior. They recruited 2,743 users through Facebook advertisements, offering $30 gift cards in exchange for consent to share public profiles. According to the authors, this sample was “young, well-educated, and left-leaning compared to the average Facebook user.” They caution that their study recruits may have differed from each other in ways they could not observe, which could lead to endogeneity.
In addition to making participants deactivate their Facebook accounts for 24 hours, the researchers made a price offer to determine how much money participants would accept in exchange for deactivating Facebook for a whole month. They settled on $102, which participants in the treatment group received to deactivate Facebook. They randomly assigned 61% of the sample population to either this treatment group, or a control group that received no money. The authors then analyzed the effects of the digital detox by regularly administering surveys, tracking activity on social media profiles, and checking link-clicking behavior through emails.
From the survey data, Alcott et al. found significant improvements in self-reported measures of well-being, such as happiness, life-satisfaction, and anxiety among those who participated in the detox. 80% of participants shared that “deactivating Facebook was good for them” after the study ended.
Deactivating Facebook also increased offline activity. An average of 60 minutes per day was freed up for the detox participants, who reported spending more offline time with friends, family, and themselves. Interestingly, less time on Facebook translated into less time spent on other online activities as well. Alcott et al. find that while Facebook is a substitute for offline activities, it is a complement to other online activities.
Deactivating Facebook reduced factual news knowledge, but it also reduced political polarization. The most significant effect of deactivation was reduced exposure to news that reportedly made participants “better understand the view of their own political party relative to the other party.” Alcott et al. find that deactivation moves both Democrats and Republicans closer to the center, confirming prior findings that social media users are generally exposed to content that is ideologically congenial — especially on Facebook. While social media can enhance democracy by increasing awareness of current events, it can also create political polarization.
Finally, post-detox outcomes support the hypothesis that social media usage is habit-forming. Several weeks after the experiment ended, detox participants were using Facebook 22% less than the control group. While only 5% kept their accounts deactivated, most participants reported an intention to reduce Facebook usage. Tracking link-clicking on emails about ways to reduce social media consumption and engage in political causes provided even more support for Alcott et al. to conclude that “at least some learning or ‘detox’ from addiction” happened through deactivation.
Alcott et al. then calculated the net benefits of social media using both a traditional approach to welfare analysis and an updated approach that factored in their results. The traditional approach assumes that consumers are rational — their choices reflect the best possible way they could spend their money and time. Under this framework, the authors estimate that four weeks of Facebook usage creates $31 billion in consumer surplus for 172 million Facebook users.
But in reality, consumers are not fully aware of the consequences of their consumption choices. Alcott et al. use their findings to quantify how a detox changes what a consumer believes is optimal. They find that after the four-week detox, the amount of money users accepted for deactivating Facebook decreased by 14%, lowering the “benefit” side of the cost-benefit trade-off. This suggests that traditional approaches to welfare analysis are likely overestimating the value consumers place on social media.
Increasing awareness of social media’s consumption drivers and consequences — as well as detox practices — could potentially shift individual behavior towards improved well-being and less time on social media. This experiment is by no means the final word on whether the benefits outweigh the costs of social media consumption. Future research will need to better account for how social media’s increasing share in the global economy contributes to overall consumer surplus.
Allcott, H., Braghieri, L., Eichmeyer, S., & Gentzkow, M. 2020. The Welfare Effects of Social Media. American Economic Review 110: 629-676. doi.org/10.1257/aer.20190658.
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