How memes, cute animals, and luxury posts affect mood
Do social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram harm, help, or have no effect on mental well-being?
Some research suggests that social media may actually harm mental well-being (Kross, et al, 2013). However, much of the research in this area has been correlational, rather than causal. It could be that people who are experiencing poor mental health are increasingly seeking social media as an escape from an unpleasant reality. It could also be that only certain types of social media harm mental health, whereas others help it.
One key take-away from the research is that more evidence is needed to understand the causal effects of different types of social media on mental health. So we designed a pretty cool experiment to test a few commonly viewed types of social media posts on short-term mental well-being.
We conducted an experiment with 800 people to examine the short-term effects of three types of social media posts on the different parts of people’s “subjective well-being” (SWB), which includes life satisfaction, positive affect (i.e., good mood), and negative affect (i.e., distressed mood), which we measured on a 1-5 scale. Research has established SWB as a reasonably representative variable for more objective outcomes (Oswald & Wu, 2010).
Each participant viewed 10 Instagram posts within 1 of 4 randomly assigned categories: (1) Memes, i.e., satirical posts about current topics in pop-culture, (2) Animals, i.e., cute dogs and cats, (3) Luxury, and (4) Basic colors, the control condition. Examples of these conditions are below. All images can be found in our materials attachment.
We predicted that social media posts about luxury goods would decrease SWB and its three components, likely through upward social comparisons, but posts about cute animals and memes would increase SWB and its three components. We also collected gender and age variables to test whether social media posts affected those groups differently. Results Overall, our experiment with 800 people on Amazon MTurk (approx. 200 in each condition) revealed that social media posts don't seem to affect people's SWB that much, at least in the short-term. There were no significant effects of Instagram posts about luxury goods, cute animals, nor memes on overall subjective well-being (Figure 1). But this isn't too surprising given that one of the sub-components of SWB, life satisfaction, is a more enduring variable not easily affected by a brief string of Instagram posts. The effects on mood could be more interesting given it's susceptibility to more short-term stimuli.
Certain types of social media posts do affect mood, specifically by reducing negative emotions. Instagram posts of cute animals had a beneficial effect on mood, reducing negative emotions like stress and irritability by about 10-15% (Figure 2). Posts with images of luxury goods have almost no effect on mood.
The findings about memes' were interesting, and merit a follow-up study. A simple analysis shows no effect of memes on mood. But this includes people who simply "skimmed" or skipped most of the memes. We thought this might happen, and so we added a hidden timer on the meme page to measure how long our participants spent viewing the memes. When we look only at people who took at least 5 seconds to read each meme, we find a significant positive effect of about 7% on overall mood. However, for those who spent the least amount of time viewing the memes (bottom 10% or 25%), we find a significant negative effect, more than double the positive effect. What we don't know is whether memes caused these different effects, or simply people in good moods chose to spend more time viewing memes and/or people in bad moods chose not to.
Life satisfaction was not affected by any of our three types of social media posts. We also didn’t find any significant differences between genders or age categories. But a longer-term experiment could have different results.
References Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLOS ONE. 8(8): e69841. Oswald, A. J., & Wu, S. (2010). Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the U.S.A. Science, 327(5965), 576-579.
Two-sample t-tests were used to test for significant differences between the control condition and each social media condition for each of the following outcomes: (a) SWB, the average of life satisfaction and net affect, (b) life satisfaction, (c) net affect (i.e., positive and negative affect combined), (d) positive affect, and (e) negative affect. For all statistical tests, p < .05 was considered significant. Each variable was measured as follows:
Subjective Well-Being: SWB was measured as the average of (a) life satisfaction and (b) positive and negative affect (net score).
Life Satisfaction: The 5-item Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, et al., 1985) was used to measure participants’ life satisfaction. Participants were asked to indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with each of five statements on a 1-7 scale, 1 = “Disagree strongly,” 7 = “Agree strongly”. Example items include, “I am satisfied with my life” and “In most ways my life is close to my ideal.” The 7-point scale was converted to 5-point during analysis.
Positive and Negative Affect: Both positive and negative affect (i.e., mood) were measured via the 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, and Tellegen, 1988). Participants were asked to read each item and indicate to what extent he or she feel that way right now, at this moment, using a 1-5 scale, 1 = “Not at all or very slightly” 5 = “Extremely.” Although positive and negative affect were combined (i.e., net affect) before being averaged with life satisfaction to measure SWB, we also analyzed each separately, as it is likely that social media posts influence the more emotional side of our brains (i.e., System 1) relative to the more rational side of our brains (i.e., System 2).
Gender: Gender was measured via the survey question, “What is your gender?” with answer options “male” and “female.”
Age: Age was measured via the open-ended survey question, “What is your age (in years)?”
Summary statistics for this study are available below. For more details about this study, including the pre-registration, survey materials, and data, check out our page on the Open Science Framework.