Texarkana, TX View Live Radar Weather Sponsored By:

Facebook bums us out but we'll pay for it anyway

Facebook bums us out but we'll pay for it anyway

February 6th, 2019 by Cass R. Sunstein/Tribune News Service in Opinion Columns

Would you be better off without Facebook? Would society benefit, too?

A team of economists, led by Hunt Allcott of New York University, has just produced the most impressive research to date on these questions.

Allcott and his co-authors began by asking 2,884 Facebook users, in November 2018, how much money they would demand to deactivate their accounts for a period of four weeks, ending just after the midterm election.

To make their experiment manageable, the researchers focused on about 60 percent of users, who said that they would be willing to deactivate their accounts for under $102.

The researchers divided those users into two groups. The Treatment group was paid to deactivate. The Control group was not. Members of both groups were asked a battery of questions, exploring how getting off Facebook affected their lives.

The most striking finding is that even in that short period, those who deactivated their accounts seemed to enjoy their lives more as a result. In response to survey questions, they showed decreases in depression and anxiety. They also showed improvements in both happiness and life satisfaction.

Why is that? The researchers don't have an answer to that question, but they do show that deactivating Facebook gave people a nice gift: about 60 minutes per day on average. Those who got off the platform spent that time with friends and family, and also watching television alone. Interestingly, they did not spend more time online.

Getting off Facebook also led people to pay less attention to politics. Those in the Treatment group were less likely to give the right answers to questions about recent news events. They were also less likely to say that they followed political news.

Perhaps as a result, deactivating Facebook led to a major decrease in political polarization. On political questions, Democrats and Republicans in the Treatment group disagreed less sharply than did those in the Control group. It is reasonable to speculate that while people learn about politics on their Facebook page, what they see is skewed in the direction they prefer—which leads to greater polarization.

But here's the rub. After one month without Facebook, the median amount that users would demand to deactivate their account for another month was still pretty high: $87. The U.S. has 172 million Facebook users. Assuming that the median user demands $87 to give up use of the platform for a month, a little multiplication suggests that the platform is providing Americans with benefits: If each user gets the equivalent of $87 in benefits per month, the total amount is in the hundreds of billions of annually.

With that finding in mind, Allcott and his co-authors offer a strong conclusion, one that should provide a lot of comfort to Facebook's executives. The researchers insist that on balance, Facebook produces "enormous flows of consumer surplus," in the form of those hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits, for which users pay nothing at all (at least not in monetary terms).

Maybe that's right—but maybe not.

Recall that those who deactivated their accounts reported that they were better off along multiple dimensions—happier, more satisfied with their lives, less anxious, less depressed. So here's a real paradox: Facebook users are willing to give up a significant sum of money, each month, to make themselves more miserable.

To resolve the paradox, consider two possibilities.

The first is that the important measure—the gold standard—is people's actual experience. When people say that they would demand $87 to give up use of Facebook for a month, they are making a big mistake. The monetary figure might reflect a simple habit or a prevailing social norm, or even a kind of addiction.

The second possibility is that survey answers about personal well-being—including anxiety and depression—fail to capture everything that people really care about.

Both of these possibilities undoubtedly capture part of the picture. But let's not lose sight of the most striking implication of the new research: Voluntary use of Facebook (and probably Twitter as well) is making a lot of people stressed and sad. For many of us, deactivating might well turn out to be a gift that keeps on giving.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Texarkana Gazette Comments Policy

The Texarkana Gazette web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Gazette web sites and any content on the Gazette web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Gazette, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Gazette web sites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Texarkana Gazette
15 Pine Street
Texarkana, TX 75501
Phone: 903-794-3311
Email: webeditor@texarkanagazette.com