There is no evidence the global spread of Facebook is linked to widespread psychological harm, an Oxford Internet Institute (OII) study suggests.
The research looked at how wellbeing changed in 72 countries as use of the social media platform grew.
It counters the common belief that social media is psychologically harmful, the researchers argue.
Several countries, including the UK, are considering legislation to protect social media users from online harms.
Meta, which owns Facebook, has faced scrutiny following testimony from whistle-blowers and press reports based on leaks that suggested the company’s own research pointed to negative impacts on some users.
This research only looked at Facebook and not Meta’s other platforms, which include Instagram.
Prof Andrew Przybylski, of the OII, told the BBC the study tried to answer the question: “As countries become more saturated with social media, how does the wellbeing of their populations look?”
He said: “It’s commonly thought that this is a bad thing for wellbeing. And the data that we put together, and the data that we analysed didn’t show that that was the case.”
Previous OII work carried out by Prof Przybylski also found little association between teenagers’ technology use and mental health problems.
But the report only looked at the overall impact of Facebook use at a national level. The broad-brush findings would not reveal the impact of Facebook use on groups of people with particular vulnerabilities.
It might, for example, miss negative impacts on small groups of users if they were offset by positive impacts on others, Prof Przybylski accepted.
It also did not drill down to examine the risks presented by certain types of content, such as material promoting self-harm.
For Prof Przybylski, the main policy lesson from the study was that researchers needed access to better data from tech firms to answer questions about the effect of social media:
“You know, we have a situation where a handful of people are crying wolf, about social media. But we don’t actually have the data, we don’t have the materials we need to build a wolf detector,” he said.
The UK’s Online Safety Bill (OSB) is in the final stages of its parliamentary journey towards becoming law. It is designed to protect people from online harms.
But Prof Sonia Livingstone, of the London School of Economics, cautioned that the study’s relevance to the OSB was limited.
“The authors’ broad critique – that screen-time anxieties are not much supported by robust evidence – is fair. However, the study reported here is so general as to be of little use to current regulatory or clinical debates,” she told the BBC.
And while the OSB prioritises protecting children – the research does not look at youngsters as a separate group and “by and large children are not using Facebook”.
“This reminds me of a conference I went to that asked, ‘what difference did half a century of television make?’. How can there be one answer?” she said.
But she supported the authors’ call for more research based on access to data.
The peer-reviewed research by Prof Przybylski and co-author Matti Vuorre is based on a large amount of data provided by Facebook. Both researchers are independent of the company and the research was not funded by the tech giant.
Facebook gave the researchers data showing how the number of users in each country grew between 2008 and 2019 divided into two age brackets, 13-34 and over 35.
The OII team compared this data with some on wellbeing representing nearly a million people, recorded by the Gallup World Poll Survey.
Overall the researchers say they found no evidence that increasing social media adoption was linked to a negative affect on psychological wellbeing.
Prof Peter Etchells, professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, said the “broad strokes” study was fascinating.
But he said – as the authors make clear – it did not say anything about cause and effect. However, it showed the value of the technology companies opening their doors to researchers, he noted.