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Apparently Quitting Facebook Makes You Happier And Less Politically Extreme

As Facebook celebrates 15 years of virtual companionship, a new study has tracked how the social media behemoth has gone from being a friend to a frenemy that makes users less happy and more politically extreme.

A team of researchers at Standford University has tackled one of the major underlying questions of social media -- is a Facebook-free world a better one?

The new study,  which is hailed as the most comprehensive to date, offers a preview of what life would be like if users logged off for good -- both for the individual and for society.

It enlisted the help of 2,844 Facebook users in the run-up to the 2018 U.S. midterm election last November.

The cohort had to abstain from Facebook for a month, so researchers could analyse its influence on behaviour, thinking and politics.

The impact was felt pretty quickly.  Participants reported having more in-person time with friends and family.

While they admitted to having less political knowledge -- they were also less partisan.

There was also a small increase in mood and life satisfaction and more time for things such as being present and mindful.

“What you see from this study is that the rise of social media -- and Facebook, in particular -- has been a double-edged sword,” Matthew Gentzkow, an economics professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research said.

The early promise of social media and its ability to connect people around the world and inspire grass-roots activism has given way to early evidence that it 's making us depressed and more politically polarised than ever.

There were a number of years where Facebook could do no wrong, Gentzkow said.

Gentzkow says the findings, raise a number of questions about social media’s impact on democracy.

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Is it better when people know less about current events and simultaneously have political views that are less extreme?

Or is an informed but divided population a better alternative?

“Any discussion of social media’s downsides should not obscure the basic fact that it fulfils deep and widespread needs,” the researchers wrote.

There Was Some Good News

The study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, also casts doubt on the extent of the mental health impact of social media.

In recent years, some mental health experts have flagged mental health concerns including depression and addiction, thanks to social media.

However, if heavy Facebook use caused significant mood problems, the researchers would have expected to see the moods of heavy users improve by a greater amount.

IMAGE: Getty Images

The authors did acknowledge that their "results on news consumption and knowledge suggest that Facebook plays an important role as a source of (real) news and information."

A Facebook press officer told the New York Times, "This is one study of many on this topic, and it should be considered that way."

The company's statement then quoted from the study saying that "Facebook produces large benefits for its users."

The researchers did note that other innovations, from novels to television, have followed similar trajectories of overstated benefits and then backpedalling once the harm becomes apparent.

The innovations remain, but the way they are used and viewed has changed drastically over the years as research is carried out.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au