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Facebook is indeed a downer, another study suggests

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with an Facebook logo as he poses with an Samsung S4 smartphone in this photo illustration taken in the ce...
Facebook young people = Sadface?Dado Ruvic / Reuters

The average U.S. resident spends a nice chunk of their life — 32 minutes daily by one estimate — on Facebook. But the question of how Facebook really makes people feel — whether we're a freshman in college, or a 45-year-old knitting enthusiast in the Midwest — that's been a subject of much debate — and several studies — among psychologists. The newest study suggests, much like others have in the past, that the social network can be a bit of a downer. 

The research, from the University of Michigan, involved surveying 82 undergrads who live near the campus, with the survey questions done, appropriately, via text message. The more time the college students said they spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to to report feeling a little less chipper, a little less satisfied with life. 

Rather than take their answers in one sitting, or two, or three, the researchers pinged the group on their phones every few hours, every day, for two weeks. The median age of the students was 19.

"The more people reported using Facebook, the more negative they were feeling following Facebook use," Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the authors of the study, told NBC News. 

The researchers published their findings in the Aug. 14 issue of PLOS ONE. 

Over the years, various studies have made a range of observations about our Facebook relationships: that posting photos alienates your friends, that "Liking" a post will nudge other friends who see it to do the same, and contrary to this study, that Facebook use will engender a sense of trust and well-being among those on the site

The study involved college-age students because "they tend to be heavy users of Facebook," Ybarra said. The next phase of research will seek answers to why Facebook users might be experiencing a decrease in joie de vivre.

Cliff Lampe, a psychologist at University of Michigan who was not involved in the study, told NBC News that "the really cool thing was the diary method for collection" of the information. The methodology in the paper provides a rich data source; he said that the fact that the authors hadn't differentiated between kinds of activities on Facebook — whether the participants were simply browsing, posting public messages, or "liking" posts and photos — was a limitation. 

"There's no such thing as one type of Facebook use[r]," Lampe said, adding that the study is "a good gateway into other types of other questions we might ask about overall Facebook use." 

Moira Burke, a data scientist at Facebook who researches human-computer interactions, believes that the Facebook experience is influenced in no small part by "what you're doing online, and whom you're doing it with," as she wrote in an email to NBC News. Her own research, conducted during her dissertation days at Carnegie Mellon University, shows that well-being improved among Facebook users — but only when they were communicating with their close friends or loved ones.

Nicole Ellison, another researcher the University of Michigan who was not involved with the study, observed that the new study was framed around the notion that Facebook is a "solitary activity," whereas often it is not. In Ellison's research, the assumption is that Facebook time is social time. 

Considering human beings are complex creatures, and our online behavior reflects that too, it's perhaps not too surprising that this study, as Ellison puts it, is just "another piece of the puzzle" about how our actions influence our state of mind, even about the world's biggest social network.

The authors of "Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults" published in PLOS One include Ethan Kross, Philippe Verduyn, Emre Demiralp, Jiyoung Park, David Lee, Natalie Lin, Holly Shablack, John Jonides, and Oscar Ybarra.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.