Facebook Inc. acknowledged research showing that some social-media use can be harmful to mental health, a rare admission that comes after many former executives raised questions about the platform’s imprint on the world.
A Friday blog post by Facebook’s top researcher pointed to external studies showing the negative effects of “passive” use of social-media sites to read news but not interact with anyone.
Facebook said the solution to the mental malaise was more Facebook. The blog post pointed to Facebook’s internal research indicating “active” use of Facebook could improve a person’s mood and well-being. The company defined active use as “sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions,” citing two Facebook papers published in 2011 and 2016.
“In sum, our research and other academic literature suggests that it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being,” according to the blog post, written by
Facebook’s director of research, and
a Facebook research scientist who was previously at Carnegie Mellon University.
The post is a remarkable turnaround for the company, which until recently largely ignored mounting research showing that Facebook use was connected to negative feelings. It comes as part of a broader reckoning within the company about the way its platform was used ahead of the 2016 presidential election and how it shapes societies around the world.
In recent weeks, several former Facebook employees and executives have said the social network was designed to foster dependence on the platform.
the founding president of Facebook, said in an interview with Axios that Facebook executives, including himself, were “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” by designing a platform built on social validation.
Facebook’s former vice president of growth,
made even starker comments at a talk at Stanford University. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Mr. Palihapitiya said at an event last month.
The remarks, which surfaced this week, drew a rare rebuke from Facebook, and Mr. Palihapitiya somewhat tempered his comments in a Facebook post Thursday night. “Facebook has made tremendous strides in coming to terms with its unforeseen influence and, more so than any of its peers, the team there has taken real steps to course-correct,” he wrote.
The Facebook researchers drew on their personal experiences to relate to concerns about social-media use. “As parents, each of us worries about our kids’ screen time and what ‘connection’ will mean in 15 years,” they wrote Friday. “We also worry about spending too much time on our phones when we should be paying attention to our families.”
Still, Facebook stoked concerns among child-development experts with the launch last week of a chat app for children, Messenger Kids.
The active use that Facebook’s research endorses is beneficial to the company, which collects more ad revenue as its users spend more time on its platform communicating with their connections. In the past, Facebook has tried to encourage users to share more, rather than lurk on the site.
Facebook is also investing in messaging beyond Messenger Kids, including a new stand-alone Instagram chat app.
In Friday’s post, Facebook said it had retooled its products to improve discourse among users. It said it demotes fabricated news articles and clickbait headlines in the news feed, even though people often click on those links. It also built a product called “Take a Break” so people can avoid stumbling across their ex-partners’ posts in the news feed.
“We’re working to make Facebook more about social interaction and less about spending time,” researchers said. Facebook also recently pledged $1 million to research on understanding the connection between technology and well-being, including among young people.
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com