A recent study about Facebook made headlines across the world with claims that using the social media site makes people sad. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what the research actually means.
Facebook has more than one billion monthly active users worldwide. Couple this with the fact that the reported benefits of emotional well-being include health and longevity, and these claims have serious implications for public health.
But before you start worrying about your use of the social media site, let's look at these claims in light of the research they're based on.
The researchers observed Facebook use and emotional well-being in 82 volunteers over two weeks. As well as measuring emotional state at both the beginning and end of the two weeks, the researchers prompted the volunteers to fill in online questionnaires about how they felt and their Facebook use throughout the fortnight, at five random times a day.
Previous studies have associated using Facebook with both positive and negative emotions. Because the studies looked at Facebook use and emotions at only one point in time, it wasn't clear what the sequence of events was.
Did certain emotions precede increased Facebook use, or the other way around? This recent study aimed to observe the sequence.
It found that feeling bad did not necessarily precede increased Facebook use, but Facebook use appeared to increase before people felt worse. The association was weak but stood even when researchers accounted for factors such as motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness and depression.
But here's the fundamental misunderstanding - just because something happens just before another does not mean that the former actually caused the latter.
Feelings, kebabs, and Facebook
Imagine if we observed a bunch of students for a couple of weeks and measured how many kebabs they ate and headaches they got.
Even if other factors, such as personality, loneliness, age, gender and even hair colour, were taken into account, the results might well show an association between eating kebabs and headaches and that eating kebabs preceded getting a headache.
It might even show that the more kebabs eaten, the worse the headache. But it would obviously be foolhardy to conclude that eating kebabs makes people have headaches.
In the same way, this study (by just observing what happens in a small group of volunteers) doesn't exclude the likelihood that other factors could be related to both dissatisfaction and increased Facebook use.
It's perfectly conceivable that an unexpected change of plans could increase your Facebook use and also make you feel more dissatisfied later. The problem here is that the study hasn't adequately accounted for other factors.
How to do it
The most effective way would be to randomly choose people to use Facebook and compare them with a control group of people who have been randomly chosen not to use Facebook. Instead of using Facebook, this latter group should spend the same amount of time doing another specified solitary activity.
Getting people to use Facebook (who might otherwise not have done) would allow us to separate the effect of actually using Facebook from the effect of things that make people want to use Facebook.
Having a control group (the second group) would allow us to separate the unique effects of using Facebook from that of other solitary activities that might also impact on emotional well-being.
Just getting texted at five random times a day and having to fill in questionnaires online might in itself affect how you feel and your behaviour. A control group would be in the same boat so we'd be able to separate the effect of using Facebook from the effects of taking part in the study itself.
Out of the estimated one billion monthly active users of Facebook worldwide, the researchers looked at 82 people with an average age of 19 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The incentive for taking part was being entered into a raffle to win an IPad2.
The relationship between Facebook use and emotions might simply not be the same for the type of person who would volunteer for this study as for other people.
Still, associations are often important and given the large number of Facebook users and the significance of emotional well-being, this could prove an important area of research.
But let's not jump ahead of ourselves: the relationship between emotional well-being and social networking is far from being fully understood from this research.
Rebecca Syed does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.