Generational researcher Jean M. Twenge has been on a lot of people’s radar lately. Her recent book iGen looks at the rise of smartphone use and how it correlates with an increase in anxiety and depression among teenagers. An excerpt of the book published in the September issue of the Atlantic magazine became one of the most viral stories of the year, touching a nerve with parents everywhere who feel increasingly uneasy about the influence of technology on their children.
So it’s not all that surprising that Twenge was name-checked on Friday in a blog post by two Facebook researchers who posed the question: Is spending time on social media bad for us? But Twenge herself wasn’t blown away by their conclusions.
“Odd is the word I would use,” she told me in a phone interview.
In the post, the researchers cite studies showing that, in fact, there’s a good way and a bad way to use Facebook. The good way, the researchers say, is by “actively interacting” with people—that is, by doing things like writing status updates and commenting on posts. Meanwhile, the bad way to use Facebook by passively by scrolling through the site and looking at other people’s posts, but not engaging with anything.
The researchers point to studies showing that it’s passive Facebook use that is linked to a decline in well-being—because that’s when we’re likely to feel envious, lonely, and resentful. So the key question is how to encourage people to use Facebook more actively. The researchers concede that Twenge offers compelling data about the troubling implications of teens and screen time, but they conclude that “it’s not the whole story.”
Twenge begs to differ. She says the post failed to address what she believes is the central question: Is the amount of time spent on social media linked to mental health issues and unhappiness? “The vast majority of research that has asked that question has found that, yes, it is,” Twenge says. “And that includes longitudinal studies and experimental studies as well as correlational studies on both teens and adults.”
While the Facebook researchers take pains to draw a distinction between active and passive Facebook use, they leave unanswered the question of which type of use is more common—an omission that stood out to Twenge.
“You have to think about the way that most people are using the app or using the site, especially the people who are spending the most time on Facebook or other social media sites, who are the most at risk for these mental health issues,” she says. “How are they using their time on the site? Unless we know that, it’s not particularly relevant to ask, well, what are people doing?”
The Facebook blog post was written by David Ginsberg, Facebook’s director of research, and Moira Burke, a research scientist at the company. Though not mentioned in the post, it was likely a response to a widely cited comment by a former Facebook executive who said social media is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Twenge said another issue with the blog post is that it relied on outdated arguments, at least as far as social media is concerned. For instance, it cited a study of public spaces by sociologist Keith Hampton, who found that “cell phones in public are more often used by people passing time on their own, rather than ignoring friends in person.”
But Hampton’s study relied on footage taken between 2008 and 2010. “As a social scientist, traditionally we move slowly, but with these types of questions, that era is already passed,” Twenge says.
Criticisms aside, Twenge does applaud Facebook for tackling the issue and says it’s a vital first step that the world’s largest social network is publicly addressing concerns about social media and mental health. “It’s absolutely a good thing that they’re acknowledging this and thinking about these questions,” she says. “It’s a good sign that we’re having this conversation.”