The results of Orben’s, Przybylski’s and Hancock’s efforts are now in. Studies from these researchers and others, published or presented in 2019, have brought some context to the question of what exactly digital technology is doing to our mental health. Their evidence makes several things clear. The results to date have been mixed because the effects measured are themselves mixed. “Using social media is essentially a trade-off,” Hancock says. “You get very small but significant advantages for your well-being that come with very small but statistically significant costs.” The emphasis is on “small”—at least in terms of effect size, which gauges the strength of the relation between two variables. Hancock’s meta-analysis revealed an overall effect size of 0.01 on a scale in which 0.2 is small. Przybylski and Orben measured the percent of variance in well-being that was explained by social media use and found that technology was no more associated with decreased well-being for teenagers than eating potatoes. Wearing glasses was worse. “The monster-of-the-week thing is dead in the water,” Przybylski says.
Furthermore, this new research reveals serious limitations and shortcomings in the science of social media to date. Eighty percent of studies have been cross-sectional (looking at individuals at a given point in time) and correlational (linking two measures such as frequency of Facebook use and level of anxiety but not showing that one causes the other). Most have relied on self-reported use, a notoriously unreliable measure. Nearly all assess only frequency and duration of use rather than content or context. “We’re asking the wrong questions,” Hancock says. And results are regularly overstated—sometimes by the scientists, often by the media. “Social media research is the perfect storm showing us where all the problems are with our scientific methodology,” Orben says. “This challenges us as scientists to think about how we measure things and what sort of effect size we think is important.”