Quitting Facebook Leads To Drop In Cortisol Levels, Australian Study Shows

Damir Mujezinovic

According to Statista, Facebook currently has more than 2 billion active monthly users, which makes it the most popular social network by a large margin. The much-discussed Cambridge Analytica scandal may have damaged Facebook's reputation, as well as its shares -- which have, as Time noted, posted their steepest drop since 2015 -- but how does Facebook affect our mental health and well-being?

Eric Vanman and Rosemary Baker from the University of Queensland, and Stephanie Tobin from the Australian Catholic University have attempted to answer this question. In a study recently published in the Journal of Social Psychology, titled "The Burden of Online Friends," the authors explore the effects of giving up Facebook on stress and well-being.

For the experiment, Vanman, Baker and Tobin recruited 138 active Facebook users. Participants were then separated into two groups, which the authors have decided to refer to as "Facebook Normal" and "No Facebook." Sixty participants were instructed to quit Facebook for five days, and 78 of them were instructed to continue using it as normal. Each individual was surveyed prior and after the experiment. Vanman and his colleagues measured salivary cortisol, perceived stress, and well-being, and asked each participant a series of questions regarding mood, loneliness, and life satisfaction.

The researchers concluded the following.

"Relative to those in the Facebook Normal condition, those in the No Facebook condition experienced lower levels of cortisol and life satisfaction. Our results suggest that the typical Facebook user may occasionally find the large amount of social information available taxing, and Facebook vacations could ameliorate this stress -- at least in the short-term."

Interestingly, however, after taking a five day break from Facebook, many participants were happy to return to it, even though using the social network caused stress. In other words, the reduction in cortisol levels was evident even after five days, but some individuals felt like they were "missing out."

Lead author of the study Eric Vanman told PsyPost that the effects of Facebook on one's cortisol levels and overall mental health and well being need to be explored more. "We don't know long it takes to get this reduction in cortisol or when it would start to increase again before someone decided to get back on Facebook. For example, it could be that being off Facebook for the first few days reduces stress, but, the longer one feels like he or she is missing out, cortisol starts to increase again."

This is popularly referred to as FoMO -- the Fear of Missing Out. A 2013 study on this subject, published in Computers in Human Behavior, defined the phenomenon as a "pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing."

Vanman and his colleagues suspect these effects are not unique to Facebook, but also assert that a much bigger study, in which the effects of social media on cortisol levels would be studied, is needed. Their preliminary findings, however, suggest that there is indeed an interesting link between stress and social media. That is why, Australian researchers claim, short breaks or "vacations" from Facebook might be a good idea.