Facebook may be the best time waster in history, but the world’s largest social network gets a giant blue thumbs down when it comes to keeping its users happy and mentally healthy. Growing bodies of research suggest Facebook not only keeps people neurotic and fraught with worry. It hurts their very self-esteem.
Social networks like Facebook, and formerly MySpace and Friendster, and Twitter to a lesser extent, experience something of an identity crisis. In the living, breathing real world, where people accidentally bump into each other and make small talk between coffee orders, personal shortcomings and hidden foibles run rampant. Conversation is mitigated to keep things amicable — and for good reason. Few people have the energy or the emotional investment to hear about your bad day.
But on Facebook there are no bad days. At least, that’s how people choose to brand themselves. In a digital world of weak ties, where the most dazzling, fun-filled photos from last night are cherry-picked from a much larger pool of blurry, awkward shots of people not at their best-looking, highlight reels mask what goes on behind the scenes. And much of the psychological research reveals this dynamic takes a toll.
Last year, a group of social psychologists from the University of Michigan published a study that found the more people used Facebook, the unhappier they became. Five times a day for two weeks, the team text messaged people asking them five questions. These questions probed subjects about their current feelings, level of worry and loneliness, Facebook use since they were last asked, and level of “direct” interaction with people since they were last asked.
The results of the study were dramatic. People were substantially unhappier the more they used Facebook between the researchers’ text messages. Even after the team controlled for loneliness levels, the team found that people were not using Facebook merely as a way to cope with their pre-existing sadness. In reality, “multiple types of evidence indicated that it was not the case that Facebook use led to declines in well-being because people are more likely to use Facebook when they feel bad,” the researchers explained. It was the Facebook use that made them sad.
For researchers like those at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, understanding whether Facebook makes people unhappy is almost beside the point; that much is already clear. The real question is, Why does it make people sad? And to dig even deeper, In what ways does it do so?
The 'Like' Machine
When people aren’t using Facebook for rekindling old relationships, they’re usually browsing through their friends’ profile pictures — clicking, mindlessly, through one ecstatic photo after another. They see smiles. Friendship. A perfect life. What they don’t see are the emotions, the tears, the frustrations, and the rest of the complex ball of yarn that goes into forming a person’s sense of self.
This gap between what’s seen and what’s experienced has a real effect on Facebook users’ impressions of themselves, girls especially. One 2013 study found that girls between the ages of 12 and 18 tended to objectify themselves more often when they used Facebook more often. Their unique features turned into “Like” and comment tokens, their body images a good to be marketed socially.
These findings built upon the already uncomfortable findings of a 2010 study, which found Internet and magazine portrayals of women, in posting to Facebook or attempting to garner subscribers, instilled in the female viewing audience a compulsion to be thin. Researchers behind the study discovered that social media sites, to an equal degree as magazine publishers who are notorious for airbrushing cover photos, reduce girls’ own satisfaction with their weight. A public survey conducted by the Center for Eating Disorders found nearly half of all respondents spent time wishing they had the same body or weight as a friend.
So what’s the solution to all this obsession over body image and self-worth? On the one hand, deleting a Facebook account necessarily removes a person from the massive social network that may be causing him or her harm. But total isolation from the digital world doesn’t have to be the only path toward feeling better. In fact, it may only suppress feelings that heavy Facebook use already built up.
A more reasonable solution may be to reevaluate the point of Facebook in the first place. Why do you use it? Are you happy with what you’re getting out of it? After some careful thought, you may discover you’re absorbing a lot more than just what your friends did last weekend. And if the research has shown anything, they’re probably thinking the same about you, too.