Turn on, tune in, drop out

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.

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In general, the researchers' findings are not good news for Facebook and its users. Getting off the platform appears to increase people's well-being - and significantly decrease political polarization.

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 per cent 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 (which means that contrary to what you might expect, they did not replace Facebook with other social media platforms, such as Instagram).

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. (This is not because the groups were different; members of both groups, selected randomly, were equally willing to give up use of Facebook for the right amount of money.) 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.

At this point, you might be thinking that these findings are absolutely terrible for Facebook. Indeed, those in the treatment group reported that they were planning to use the platform less in the future - and after the experiment ended, they were doing exactly that.

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 (maybe people are just used to having Facebook in their lives), 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.

For example, Allcott and his co-authors show that Facebook users know more about politics. Those who follow politics might become more anxious and depressed - but a lot of people still follow politics. They don't follow politics to get happy. They follow politics because they are curious, and because they think that's what good citizens do.

Similarly, Facebook users might want to know what their friends are doing and thinking, because that's good to know, whether or not that knowledge makes them happier.

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.

-- Cass Sunstein is the author of The Cost-Benefit Revolution and a co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness

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