Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) has been the subject of plenty of hand-wringing, like almost any other activity young people engage in that isn’t immediately productive. Everything from rock ‘n’ roll to Dungeons and Dragons has been blamed for a host of problems that didn’t really materialize, and it looks like it’s Facebook’s turn. A new study out of the University of Michigan claims that Facebook use directly causes people to feel worse, but the details aren’t that convincing.

Facebook

Increase in use of Facebook

The researchers, led my first author University of Michigan Professor Ethan Kross, sent participants a text message five times per day and asked them to rate their sense of well-being, then asked them how much they had used Facebook since the last message, and how much social interaction (including face-to-face and telephone conversations) they’d had in the same time frame. After collecting two weeks of data, the researchers determined that increased Facebook use caused a decline in the sense of well-being.

This effect was more pronounced in people with medium to high levels of social interaction, leading the authors to suggest that the underlying cause was mental comparison with peers who are showing the best side of their life on Facebook.

Study may be too limited and melodramatic

But the study itself is a lot more limited than its abstract would suggest. First, the paper itself describes the effect as “relatively weak,” even though they insist that it is statistically significant. But the study only included 82 people, with participation rates as low as 18.6 percent considered to be compliant, and data from three people was thrown out for non-compliance, which must have meant literally doing nothing. Another person’s data had to be tossed out as an outlier (responses four standard deviations away from the mean, which is fair enough).

There haven’t been many studies of the effect that Facebook has on people, and with social networking becoming a near constant in many people’s lives it is worth exploring, the existing literature is split. Some studies have found that Facebook makes us less happy, some have found that it makes us happier. This study found a weak effect with a small sample size over a short time frame. Saying that Facebook undermines “the basic human need for social connection,” as Kross wrote in the abstract, may be a little melodramatic.