When Facebook asks if social media is bad for us, it's time to listen.
Perhaps the back-room staff at Facebook have been gorging themselves on feel-good seasonal movies, or the ghost of Christmas future popped by. Something certainly seems to have prompted the glimmer of conscience that's on display in a recent Facebook news post, titled 'Hard Questions: Is spending time on social media bad for us?'
"In general," write the post's authors, David Ginsberg and Moira Burke, "when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information - reading but not interacting with people - they report feeling worse afterward."
As revelations go, it's right up there with the fact that repeatedly punching yourself in the face can result in facial injuries, but what is significant is not what's being said, but who is saying it. For Facebook to be openly writing about this on its own site is like McDonald's, KFC and Domino's forming an alliance to promote the role of green vegetables in a balanced diet.
Unsurprisingly, the ultimate answer to Facebook's headline question turns out to be, "Well, err, yes and no." What is surprising is that the implied solution in this post is to become more, rather than less, involved in your Facebook community. In other words, the beatings will stop when morale improves.
No matter how many shovels full of salt you take its conclusion with, Facebook's willingness to address the question of its own influence reflects growing alarm about the power of social media, and about the online companies' traditional approach to the content they host, which is not so much arm's length as a barge pole away.
This is also proving to be a rich seam for academics to mine. Dr Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh last year conducted a study among 1,787 young adults. "We were surprised with what we found," he said. "We had expected a U-shaped curve, with a higher risk of depression being correlated with no social media use at all or excessive use. But instead, what we found was a straight line. More social media use was associated with more depression in a linear fashion."
You might expect Primack to be manning the barricades and calling for a ban or more oversight. He's not. "Social media, like many other technologies, represents a double-edged sword," he said, "with many potential positive uses. Instead, we hope to help people use this medium for improving life and not inadvertently detracting from it."
In other words, moderation in all things. Human beings have always rushed to embrace new ideas, from farming to the internal combustion engine, without bothering to consider the possible consequences. Age, history and evolution do not necessarily confer wisdom on any of us, and when a new phenomenon such as the internet or social media comes along, we are all effectively children when learning to deal with it.
So, why not acknowledge that fact and treat yourself as a child - more specifically as the child of someone who really does understand technology? Many of the world's tech gurus, including Apple's Jonathan Ive and the late Steve Jobs, strictly rationed the time their own children could spend on the machines they created in order to create a balance in their lives.
It can be a struggle to maintain such balance. Several studies suggest that extended internet use can produce feelings of gratification akin to taking drugs or alcohol, and signs of addiction should perhaps be taken more seriously, particularly when the effects on mood and mental health can be so marked.
Ultimately, though, any solution starts with the recognition of a problem. So here's an experiment you might like to try.
This year, as the turkey goes cold, go cold turkey. Strike an agreement with your friends on social media to put your phones or laptops to one side for a few days, then come back and compare notes. Will you reach for that phone like a smoker reaches for the packet? Or will you rediscover inner peace and feelings of goodwill to all?
- Guardian News & Media Ltd
Nigel Kendall is a freelance journalist and former senior content manager at Guardian Labs.
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