Second, it should be noted that the average age of participants in this study was just over 19 years old. Given that usage of online social networks almost certainly differs dramatically between different age groups, it would be interesting to see if these findings hold up for older populations. Similarly, one should be careful about generalizing the results of this study to other online social media platforms. Perhaps these findings are specific to Facebook, and if the researchers had investigated usage of Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, or some other platform, they might have found a different relationship.
A third caveat has to do with the way in which the researchers measured their variables. Since participants were reporting on their mood and Facebook use at the same time, it could be that reflecting on how they felt could have changed how much they remembered using Facebook. For example, if a participant felt bad at that moment, that may have lead them to overestimate how much time they had spent on Facebook in the last few hours.
Despite these limitations, the study addresses a pressing question about the way our social lives are structured, and provides some intriguing evidence that social interaction online may be associated with reduced well-being. The internet is not going anywhere, and as the proportion of people connected to the web rises, so too does its importance as central part of our social world.
So, although you may feel a sense of obligation to wish your office-mate or next-door-neighbor a very happy birthday on Facebook, maybe it would be good to try a different approach. Forget the canned Facebook message, and take them to get a cup of coffee. Stop by and invite them to dinner. See if they’ll join you for a walk. It remains to be definitively established that Facebook itself is a problem, but real-life interaction is absolutely something our extraordinarily social species benefits from, and we should make every attempt to maximize our intake of this form of socialization.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.