May 27, 2020

Top Economists Study What Happens When You Stop Using Facebook


In the most recent issue of the prestigious American Economic Review, a group of well-known economists published a paper titled “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” It presents the results of one of the largest randomized trials ever conducted to directly measure the personal impact of deactivating Facebook.

The experimental design is straightforward. Using Facebook ads, the researchers recruited 2,743 users who were willing to leave Facebook for one month in exchange for a cash reward. They then randomly divided these users into a Treatment group, that followed through with the deactivation, and a Control group, that was asked to keep using the platform. 

The researchers deployed surveys, emails, text messages, and monitoring software to measure both the subjective well-being and behavior of both groups, both during and after the experiment. 

Here are some highlights of what they found:

  • “Deactivating Facebook freed up 60 minutes per day for the average person in our Treatment group.” Much of this time was reinvested in offline activities, including, notably, socializing with friends and family. 
  • “Deactivation caused small but significant improvements in well-being, and in particular in self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety.” The researchers report this effect to be around 25-40% of the effect typically attributed to participating in therapy. 
  • “As the experiment ended, participants reported planning to use Facebook much less in the future.” Five percent of the Treatment group went even farther and declined to reactivate their account after the experiment ended. 
  • “The Treatment group was less likely to say they follow news about politics or the President, and less able to correctly answer factual questions about recent news events.” This was not surprising given that this group spent 15% less time reading any type of online news during the experiment.
  • “Deactivation significantly reduced polarization of views on policy issues and a measure of exposure to polarizing news.” On the other hand, it didn’t significantly reduce negative feelings about the other political party.

This study validates many of the ideas from Digital Minimalism (indeed, the paper even cites the book in its introduction). People spend more time on social media than they realize, and stepping away frees up time for more rewarding offline activities, leading, in turn, to an increase in self-reported happiness and a decrease in self-reported anxiety. 

The main negative impact experienced by the Treatment group was that they were less up to date on the news. Some might argue that this isn’t really negative, but even for those who prioritize current events knowledge, there are, obviously, many better ways to keep up with news than Facebook.

Perhaps most interesting was the disconnect between the subjects’ experience with deactivating Facebook and their prediction about how other people would react. “About 80 percent of the Treatment group agreed that deactivation was good for them,” reports the researchers. But this same group was likely to believe that others wouldn’t experience similar positive effects, as they would likely “miss out” more. The specter of FOMO, in other words, is hard to shake, even after you’ve learned through direct experience that in your own case this “fear” was largely hype.

This final result tells me that perhaps an early important step in freeing our culture from indentured servitude in social media’s attention mines is convincing people that abstention is an option in the first place. 

About Cal Newport


I'm a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of digital technology and culture. I’m particularly interested in our struggles to deploy these tools in ways that support instead of subvert the things we care about. If you’re new to my writing, a good place to start is with my latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, or my about page. You can also access over a decade's worth of posts in the blog archive.

5 thoughts on “Top Economists Study What Happens When You Stop Using Facebook”

  1. TIFFANY says:

    Wow, what an interesting paper! I’m on the second to last day of my 30 day digital detox right now, so I haven’t been on Facebook for a month. I don’t know if a lot of their findings apply to me, considering that before starting the detox, I mainly used Facebook for its messaging service and didn’t browse through it much. I’m definitely going to keep the apps off my phone after the detox is over, but I didn’t notice much more time in my day being freed up. The only significant changes that have happened during this month are that I finished reading 6 books (5 of which are yours), I’m much more tolerant of boredom while waiting in line/eating/etc., and I talk to some people less. My phone’s screentime also went down to an average of 18 minutes/day. Yet, my weekdays still feel full of work and I feel like I’m behind on my classes, so if an hour a day did get freed up somewhere, I haven’t noticed it (maybe that’s just discrete math being hard, though). My happiness levels seem about the same to me. I can’t speak much to polarization of views and following news less since I didn’t use Facebook for news to begin with. So overall, interesting results but nothing that seems to have had a profound effect on me.

  2. NASSIM says:

    In one of your recent post you talked about the exceptionalism of the Youtube platform. I have succeeded in shaking myself of Twitter, Facebook, etc… but Youtube it’s kind of really hard because there is valuable/educational content here. Abstention is really hard in this case.

    That’s why I’ve started using technology to fight technology. YT Recommendation blockers and the likes. Because I’m a CS student and had a bit of free time recently I’ve made an application called MinimalTube.

    One thing that I see lacking in todays available tools to break Youtube addiction is the time management aspect. 

    MinimalTube is a small program that contains
    – A search engine that limits itself to 8 search results.
    – The ability to add and remove videos to a watch list.
    – The ability to calculate how much time investment will the watch list take (in hours and minutes). It will tell you that your watch list will take x hours by summing the duration of each individual videos in the watch list.
    – It outputs your watch list as an html file that contains embedded YT players (avoiding distracting recommendations) that you can open using any browser (on phone/ipad/tablets/computers as well if you send yourself the html file through email to your devices.)
    – It also provides you with links to download the videos for offline consumption.
    – On a phone you can still listen to the videos with your screen shut off as long as you use the alternative (invidious) links that my program provides.

    Its available for both Windows and MacOS.
    Its free and you can get it here:

    Hope this helps people struggling like I did.

  3. STÉPHAN says:

    I always felt depressed when I was on Facebook. A few days ago, I deactivated my account and tomorrow I will start my 30 days digital detox.

    Before that, I was already applying a few rules to help me improve my analog life.

    1. When my iMac broke, I decided to work only on my iPad. More than one year later, I am still using only my iPad and everything is going great.

    2. I never had a smartphone. Instead, I have a dumb phone that I use maybe once a month if there is an emergency.

    3. In the last months, I deleted all my social media accounts in the last months (Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram). Facebook, a few days ago.

    4. I unsubscribed from all newsletters using Instead, I prefer to use Feedly. I added four blogs, including this one, to my Feed.

    6. I removed notifications from all my apps.

    7. I deleted all the apps that were not useful to me. Today, I have only 22 apps. Some I never use but can’t delete them because Apple doesn’t want me to

    8. I blocked tons of websites (news, social media, youtube …).

    9. I don’t listen to podcasts anymore. I prefer to listen to audiobooks.

    10. I don’t have any TV so when I want to see what’s on the news, I just open the radio and listen to the five minute report of the day.

    11. To improve my oil painting skills, I give myself the permission to watch videos from an oil painter I like three times a week.

    12. For the month of March, I decided to try to not download and upload more than 30 Gigs on my internet provider.

  4. ELLIOTT says:

    Hi Cal, 

    Just out of curiosity, did the study mention if the participants either increased or decreased their time on ‘shallow work’? (Email, power-points, being a general busy-bee, etc). 

    P.S. Can you send me a copy of your article about emails wasting professors’ time? I got hit with a paywall on the last link you posted. Thanks.

  5. JIANWEN YANG says:

    From Adam Grant’s newletter:
    Social Media Has Not Destroyed a Generation (Scientific American)
    On average, social media use has no more impact on teenagers’ well-being than eating potatoes.
    A rigorous, comprehensive meta-analysis (a quantitative study of studies, synthesizing 226 articles with 275,000+ participants) reveals that sleep and breakfast matter more, and smoking pot and being bullied matter 2.7x and 4.3x more.
    The effects of new technologies depend on how we use them. Engaging actively with social media—and feeling in control of it—predicts higher well-being.

    I think the evidence is good. Indeed, social media may waste time, but its positive and negative effect really depends. And overall, things like rumination/worry/lack of problem-solving etc. are more harmful.

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