If you’re like many users of Facebook, the world’s largest social network, you continue to check in with your “friends” via Facebook’s website or app on a regular or semi-regular basis despite your misgivings about the good intentions of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, the social network’s attentive collection of your data, or the number of cat videos and conspiracy theories you see in your News Feed.
Baby photos can get repetitive, political rants can grow tiresome, comments from people you never talk to get annoying, and watching all of your friends get married, have kids, or earn graduate degrees through the steady march of status updates and smartphone photos can wear on you when you’re less-than-satisfied with how your life is going. But when you close the browser or lock your phone, the low level of annoyance subsides, and you get back to your life. Right? According to an assortment of studies on the psychological effects of logging in to the social network, wrong.
Researchers at a number of academic institutions — plus at Facebook itself — have conducted an ever-increasing number of studies into how logging in to Facebook, scrolling through your News Feed, checking up on what your friends and acquaintances are doing, and posting your own photos and status updates on the social network affect how you feel about yourself and your life. And a lot of what they’ve found doesn’t bode so well for Facebook and for those addicted to checking in to the social network.
Researchers have found that using Facebook frequently is linked to symptoms of depression. They’ve proven that emotions, both positive and negative, spread easily via the posts users share on the social network. They’ve found that simply logging in to Facebook regularly negatively impacts how happy young adults are. And they’ve found that passive participation or feeling ostracized on the social network lead to negative psychological effects. Read on for the results of four of these studies — and then perhaps consider checking in to the social network a little less frequently, or taking it a little less seriously when you do.
1. Comparing yourself to your Facebook friends is depressing
The Washington Post reports that research has drawn a connection between Facebook use and symptoms of depression, thanks to our tendency to compare ourselves and our lives to the images our “friends” project on the social network. The study, titled “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms” and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, found that “The more time you spend on Facebook, the more likely it is for you to feel depressive symptoms,” according to lead author Mai-Ly Steers, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Houston. “The underlying mechanism is social comparison. So essentially the reason you feel these feelings is that you tend to socially compare yourself to your friends.”
Steers and her coauthors completed two experiments with more than 100 subjects, measuring their Facebook usage, depressive symptoms, and their tendency to compare themselves with others. Spending a lot of time on the social network, or visiting it more frequently, was positively correlated with a tendency to compare oneself to others, which, in turn, is associated with increased depressive symptoms.
A lot of this likely has to do with social media users’ tendency to present their lives in the best light possible, leaving out the more mundane or disappointing details. “If you’re looking at your friends’ highlight reels, you might feel you don’t measure up, but that is a very distorted view,” Steers tells the Post. She adds, “If the images of our fabulous friend are causing us to feel more depressed, maybe we need to step away.”
2. Your mood is affected by what your Facebook friends post
As Vindu Goel reported for The New York Times last summer, Facebook revealed that it manipulated the News Feeds of more than half a million unsuspecting Facebook users to alter the emotional content of the posts that they saw. It did so to study whether and how emotions can be spread on social media. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” (PDF), revealed that Facebook had altered the number of positive and negative posts in the News Feeds of 689,003 users to see what effect the changes had on the tone of the posts those users then wrote.
The researchers found that moods were contagious; the users who saw more positive posts wrote more positive posts, while those who saw more negative posts were more negative in their own posts. The study highlighted the degree to which Facebook controls the content its users see, with the algorithm that populates the News Feed playing a decisive role in choosing which of all of the potential posts will actually end up in front of a user.
While Facebook maintained that users consent to this kind of experimentation when they agree to its terms of service, the Internet was quick to pass judgment on the social networking giant. Many regarded the study as unethical, if not strictly illegal, even as others pointed out that Facebook is hardly the only tech company to manipulate aspects of a product’s user experience and analyze how users respond. And the study seemed to clearly violate the principles of academic and psychological research, even as the researchers behind the study presented their findings as social science.
3. And Facebook itself probably doesn’t help your mood
Two years ago, Elise Hu reported for NPR that a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that the more frequently young adults used Facebook, the worse they felt. The study, published in the PLOS ONE journal, found that Facebook usage led to declines in both moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction among college-aged adults.
Researchers tested the variables of happiness and satisfaction in real time on 82 participants, text-messaging them five times per day for two weeks to find out how Facebook use influenced the way they felt. The participants responded to questions about loneliness, anxiety, and general emotional wellbeing. While the study didn’t deeply investigate why Facebook made users sadder and less satisfied, coauthor John Jonides pointed to social comparison as a possibility.
“When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook,” he told NPR. The study found that Facebook’s negative effects were most pronounced for users who socialize the most in “real life,” with those who did the most face-to-face socializing reporting the most dramatic Facebook-related mood decline. But the solution, the researchers found, was simple enough: direct interactions with other people, either face-to-face or over the phone, led participants to feel better.
4. Lurking or feeling ostracized on Facebook hurts your self esteem
Science Daily reported last year that a study published in the journal Social Influence, called “Threats to belonging on Facebook: lurking and ostracism,” found that a lack of active participation on the social network negatively impacts users’ wellbeing and their perception that their lives are meaningful.
The researchers conducted two experiments to examine the effects of lurking and ostracism, which they identified as to threats to a sense of belonging on a social network like Facebook. In the first study, participants were either allowed or not allowed to share information on Facebook for 48 hours. Those who weren’t allowed to share had lower levels of belonging and “meaningful existence.”
In the second study, the researchers simulated a version of Facebook where half of the participants’ profiles would not receive any feedback on status updates. The participants who didn’t receive feedback had lower levels of belonging, self esteem, control, and meaningful existence, and the researchers concluded that passive Facebook participation or feeling ostracized on the social network have a negative impact on users’ wellbeing.
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