Facebook researchers discover apps can increase loneliness

Naomi Nix and Kurt Wagner
Bloomberg News

When Facebook hosted an internal competition a few years ago to develop new product ideas, a handful of employees teamed up to build a robot named Max.

Shaped like a small, upside-down bowl, Max was designed to be a companion — a physical device humans could talk to that could detect their mood, according to two people familiar with the hackathon project. The creators gave Max little ears and whiskers so the device would be more fun and approachable, like a cat.

Max never evolved beyond the hackathon. But engineers and researchers at the company, now called Meta Platforms Inc., are still grappling with the thorny problem the experimental robot cat was designed to combat: loneliness. Meta, with a mission to help people connect online, has discovered through internal research that its products can just as easily have an isolating effect. As the company struggles to retain and add users for its already-massive social networks, making sure those people are happy is key to Meta’s financial success.

Loneliness has come into sharper focus at Meta during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people use its social media apps as alternatives to in-person experiences. Meta has promoted its role as a digital connector, running ads touting its groups and messaging products.

“We change the game when we find each other,” reads a tagline for one of its recent commercials. But internally, employees are questioning their products’ impact on mental health.

Solution unclear: Meta wants to address the problem but doesn’t know how. Internal research shows that a given feature — such as one that shows people photo memories — can spark feelings of connection for some and sadness for others. Regulators, meanwhile, are already probing whether Meta’s Instagram harms young people.

An internal study from September 2018 found that more than a third of Facebook users — approximately 36% — reported feeling lonely in the past month, according to documents disclosed by Frances Haugen, a former product manager. Haugen was responsible for leaking a large cache of internal documents.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with 53 people, found loneliness was most common with young people, age 13 to 24, a key demographic that Meta is targeting for both Facebook and Instagram. Loneliness was also more common with men than women.

Internal researchers acknowledged that Meta’s social networks could be exacerbating loneliness instead of alleviating it. Another study from November 2018, also in Haugen’s cache of documents, found that certain Facebook experiences increase loneliness — like seeing “negative posts or hurtful comments,” seeing friends having fun without you, or seeing posts that lead to social comparisons. Facebook use made people feel “less lonely” than some other activities, like using Twitter or dating apps. But people also said using Facebook increased loneliness more than other activities its researchers surveyed, including video games and TV.

Time matters: Other experiences reduced loneliness, like “seeing something funny or entertaining,” the research found. One key data point relates to how much time users spent on the service, the report found.

“People who spend about an hour a day are the least lonely,” it says. “People who spend much less or much more time are lonelier.” When users who are already lonely turn to Facebook, 41% said it made them feel better, and just 6% said it made them feel worse. But 42% said they felt both more and less lonely after using the app.

The conflicting results make it difficult to prescribe what kinds of product changes could benefit Facebook’s users. And the stakes are high: On Feb. 2, Facebook reported that its user base stopped growing, and shrank in some markets, for the first time. The company’s shares lost more than a quarter of their value the next day.

Continuing to understand loneliness is key to the company’s goals, said Eden Litt, a director on Meta’s internal research team.

“There tends to be a relationship between social media and loneliness” in some research, Litt said, “but those studies can’t answer for us: Is social media causing loneliness? Are lonely people coming to social media?” Users’ life experiences, such as big moves or romantic breakups, may affect the data, she added.

The stakes of loneliness extend far beyond fleeting moments of discomfort, according to a growing body of academic research. Feeling socially disconnected from others is linked to physical and emotional problems such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and anxiety. Lonely people are also more likely to get less sleep, exercise less and consume more alcohol, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.

“We’re not meant to be alone,” Holt-Lunstad said. “Our brains use more metabolic resources when facing threats alone versus when we’re in the presence of others.”

Whether or not it’s responsible for such feelings, Meta has a business incentive to solve the problem of loneliness. The more social media connections someone has, and the more fulfilling those connections are, the more likely people will find value in using Meta’s products.

Ultimately, Meta’s research reports concluded that Facebook is a “net positive” when it comes to loneliness. Still, they note that the tendency of its products to encourage social comparison can “drive people to use Facebook in ways that aggravate loneliness.”

Litt says the company has continued to study loneliness, though it declined to share updated research.