Protocol | Policy

Lonely people spend much more time on Facebook than the average user, internal documents show

Does Facebook help or hurt lonely people?

Facebook Papers: Mark Zuckerberg

Lonely people spend much more time on Facebook.

George Frey/Bloomberg; Getty Images; Protocol illustration

For people who already feel lonely, spending time on Facebook doesn't help — but it doesn't necessarily hurt, either, according to internal documents.

In November 2018, Facebook researchers produced an internal report called, "Facebook both increases and decreases loneliness." The researchers found basically a U-shaped curve for loneliness and Facebook use: People who identified as less lonely spent about an hour per day scrolling through the platform, whereas users who identified as more lonely logged on either for much shorter or much longer periods of time.

The research is part of disclosures made to the SEC and provided to Congress in redacted form by whistleblower Frances Haugen's legal counsel. The documents show how some of the platform's features, like Facebook Memories, work as a double-edged sword. Depending on the circumstance, they can sometimes make people feel better, but also sometimes make people feel worse and prompt negative social comparison.

Meta (formerly Facebook) spokesperson Joe Osborne told Protocol the company has continued to conduct research around understanding loneliness and social connection. "The research has informed how we build higher quality social experiences across our products — and we're committed to continuing it."

Using Facebook helps to decrease loneliness more than using other social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and dating apps, the study found. On the other hand, respondents said using the platform made them feel more lonely than participating in any other activities outlined in the survey such as listening to music, spending time with family and friends or even watching TV or YouTube.

"It could be that people have different expectations about Facebook," one of the study's authors wrote. "People may not expect TV and video games to affect their loneliness much, other than to distract or entertain them. But Facebook is social, so people may expect it to have a larger impact on their loneliness, both increasing and decreasing it."

Some users who reported being the most isolated were at the extremes for daily Facebook use, averaging either three hours or more on the platform, or 10 minutes or less. Not only do lonelier people spend much more or much less time on Facebook compared to other users, but also they use the time they do spend differently. Facebook's research found lonely users tend to be more passive (reading more and posting less) and are more likely to compare themselves to others.

Some specific Facebook products also had mixed outcomes for users with feelings of isolation. One of the most obvious examples was Facebook Memories: Researchers found that the feature made some people feel more lonely, and others feel less so. "This is a good reminder that features like On This Day impact people differently, depending on the person, the memory and the context," the author wrote.

Researchers seemed to have reservations about what respondents said made them feel better. They found that funny and inspirational content or posts that help users learn something new made them feel better, but the author of the study warned that those kinds of posts may only bring short-term happiness, and instead suggested that deeper connections with other people are most valuable. "Talking one-on-one with other people may be uncomfortable or less entertaining in the short term, but may be most beneficial in the long term."

The research was conducted across about a dozen countries, but was not broken out across demographic features such as age or gender. Users from the United States were among those who reported feeling the least amount of loneliness on the platform, while users from countries including Egypt, Thailand and Turkey reported the highest feelings of isolation.

While age wasn't accounted for in the study, previous reports showed Facebook and Instagram playing a role in poor mental health among teens specifically. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Instagram made teen girls feel worse about their bodies and sometimes prompted mental health issues such as depression and eating disorders. Those issues have caught the attention of lawmakers, who have since pledged to look into the issue and push for measures to better protect teens online.

According to the 2018 report, researchers said the solutions to these issues boiled down to balancing Facebook's algorithms; uprank funny content, but don't overdo it because it may only help in the short term. Allow users to set time limits on the platform so they spend less passive time scrolling. Keep Facebook Memories, but give users the option to tap out of the feature if they want.

The exact steps Facebook took since that study are unclear. Currently, it's possible to block Facebook Memories, and users can set reminders when they've reached a certain amount of time scrolling through Facebook. But those have been the only obvious changes to fighting isolation on Facebook. It's unclear whether Facebook upranks more uplifting content, and if it does, what kind of effect that has on lonely users.

Less than a year after conducting the study, Facebook researchers came out with another report detailing the platform's goals for dealing with loneliness. More than one in three — 37% — of Facebook users indicated that they had "felt lonely and had no one to turn to," the second report found.

Based on that report, Facebook decided to prioritize supporting users through life transitions and those more likely to experience loneliness or isolation, such as veterans and new parents. "Because people conduct so much of their social life on Facebook, we are in a unique position to detect triggers for loneliness and proactively provide support," the document reads. The team also made it a point to reduce the stigma around loneliness, particularly in at-risk countries and for at-risk populations.

But again, the platform's actions since setting those goals are up in the air. Sure, users could seek out a Facebook Group for support in any given circumstance. But if, how and when Facebook took measures to address the stigma around loneliness, support life transitions and help those more likely to feel alone are largely unknown.

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