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Causation, not just correlation, baby! And from the Ivy League! Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Facebook would be nothing without the Ivy League.

For its first year or so, you couldn’t sign up without an email address from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford,1 and eventually other elite universities. It piggybacked on the most exclusive clubs in the world.

But as long as we’ve been beating up on Facebook the last few days—with good reason, I must say—there’s an Ivy League study I’d like to mention that spells trouble for Facebook, along with Instagram and related apps.

That's because this was the first study to show a "clear causal link" between using social media like Facebook and being lonely and depressed.

Now, other studies have certainly found that heavy users of Facebook and other social media sites suffered mental health issues. But that was about correlation, not causation.

In other words, it might simply have been that people who are already depressed and lonely wind up using Facebook and similar sites—as opposed to the sites themselves causing the issues.

This study, from the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania, however, says it made the more important connection. Here it is in their own words:

[O]urs is the first study to establish a clear causal link between decreasing social media use, and improvements in loneliness and depression. It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that reducing social media, which promised to help us connect with others, actually helps people feel less lonely and depressed.

Emphasis added because it’s important. The research was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology (opens as .pdf)

The study focused on 143 University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, who were tested over a period of weeks on seven different scales that measure moods and psychological well-being.

Half of the students used Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat just as they normally would. The other half restricted their social media use to 10 minutes per day for the course of the study.

This was verified by using data from their phones. Also, the study was conducted just before TikTok really took off, for what it’s worth, so it’s not included.

In the end, the more students used the sites, the more their mental heath fell apart.

"[L]imiting social media usage on a mobile phone to 10 minutes per platform per day for a full three weeks had a significant impact on well-being. Both loneliness and depressive symptoms declined in the experimental group," the study reported.

Moreover, the participants could see how cutting back was helping them. Among their comments:

  • "Not comparing my life to the lives of others had a much stronger impact than I expected, and I felt a lot more positive about myself during those weeks."

  • "It was easier than I thought to limit my usage. Afterwards I pretty much stopped using Snapchat because I realized it wasn't something I missed."

  • "I ended up using less and felt happier and like I could focus on school and not (be as) interested in what everyone is up to." 

My favorite aside in whole thing notes that many participants didn't contribute to a follow-up data effort, because they'd been offered extra credit in class to participate—but then the class ended. So much for science.

Of course, it's the empirical data (not the anecdotal data) showing that people were happier when they cut back on social media, that is probably most important scientifically. And there's lots of room for more research to be done.

But like the students involved, you probably can figure out the answer yourself.

7 other things worth your time

  • It’s still dire in Texas. Half the state is without clean, running water. Also, Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials said Thursday. (CBS News, Texas Tribune)

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover made a perfect touchdown on Mars. “This landing is one of those pivotal moments for NASA, the United States, and space exploration globally,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. (Space.com, NASA)

  • Speaking of dire situations and dangerous journeys, Senator Ted Cruz is taking massive political heat after he and his family left the turmoil in Texas for the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, Mexico. Cruz left his wife and daughters on vacation and rushed back to Texas after it became a big political embarrassment. (NYT)

  • Replacing President Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman has become a political issue. One thing I don’t think people realize: It’s only in the last 100 years or so that U.S. currency has remained stable, with few changes to designs and pictures. For the first 150 or so years, U.S. banknotes changed constantly. (Politico)

  • “One out of every ten U.S. workers -- about 17 million, all told -- will likely be forced to leave their jobs and take up new occupations by 2030 as Covid-19’s after-effects destroy huge swathes of low-paying positions in a labor market that was primed for disruption before the pandemic.” (Bloomberg)

  • Uber announced its employees can work from home through September. I’m sure many other companies will keep extending the WFH dates like this, but it’s ironic for Uber to be among the first, right? Since almost everyone who “works for Uber” is actually out driving cars? (TechCrunch)

  • More than half of Americans in romantic relationships say they kiss their pets more than their romantic partners. Also, 49 percent say they let their pets (mostly dogs) sleep in bed with them, and 34 percent say they’re fine with a pet following them into the bathroom. I was about to say, “Look, I like animals as much as the next guy…” but if this study is right, it turns out I do not like animals anywhere NEAR as much as the next guy. (StudyFinds)

Thanks for reading. I wrote about some of this once on Inc.com, too. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.

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I know Stanford is not in the Ivy League, but for our purposes it’s part of the same strata.