New research finds that social networks including Facebook “may threaten subjective well-being” by eroding a user’s trust in the rest of society with exposure to homophobic, racist or misogynistic content.
Scientists from the Sapienza University of Rome and the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques du Grand-Duché du Luxembourg explored survey data from 50,000 people in 24,000 Italian households which looked at internet and social network use, as well as self-reported levels of happiness and self-esteem.
They found that social networks increased the risk of being exposed to “offensive behaviours and hate speech”, which could have a harmful effect on people’s mental wellbeing.
“In online discussions with unknown others, individuals more easily indulge in aggressive and disrespectful behaviours. Online networks also are a fertile ground for spreading harmful, offensive, or controversial contents often lying at the verge between free speech and hate speech,” they said.
The results add weight to previous research which found that social networks can decrease people’s happiness and general satisfaction with their lives.
For two weeks a group of 82 people were sent text messages five times a day and asked to reply explaining how they felt that moment, and also how satisfied they were with their lives overall.
What the researchers found was that using Facebook tended to lower the results for both questions.
“The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” said the paper.
"On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection," said Ethan Kross, a social psychologist who led the work at the University of Michigan.
"But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result – it undermines it."
Currently Facebook has over a billion users, 500 million of whom interact with the social network every day through the website or apps.