Here’s an Explanation for the Connection Between Facebook and Unhappiness

Photo: DWithers/Getty Images

There’s an understandable fascination with the question of what effects Facebook has on its 1.3 billion users, and the answer has turned out to be a bit complicated, with findings pointing in both negative (Facebook makes people less happy) and positive (Facebook makes people more trusting and socially connected) directions. Maria Konnikova pointed out in her extremely helpful 2013 rundown of the research that the mixed messages are probably the result of “Facebook” being such a broad topic. As the researcher Samuel Gosling told her, “What makes it complicated is that Facebook is for lots of different things — and different people use it for different subsets of those things.”

It makes intuitive sense. If one person uses Facebook only to accept party invites and the other uses it to obsessively comb through pictures of exes, you’d imagine the site having different effects on these two individuals. And tons of researchers think that what matters the most is how frequently Facebook users compare themselves to other people — an inevitable human tendency that’s been known to lead to unhappiness.

In a recent study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, a team led by Mai-Ly N. Steers of the University of Houston attempted to better understand the connections between Facebook, happiness, and social comparison. In two studies, they tracked the depressive symptoms and Facebook usage habits of a group of students at a Southwestern university.

Overall, they found that the more time a given student spent on Facebook, the stronger the depressive symptoms they experienced. That connection, though, was influenced by how frequently the student in question compared themselves to others on Facebook — so things aren’t quite as simple as “Facebook causes depression.”

Rather, the authors write, “Both studies provide evidence that people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.” The researchers also tested the reverse idea — that depressed people spend more time on Facebook, are more likely to make social comparisons, and therefore see worse outcomes — but didn’t find much statistical support for this idea. So overall, it seems to be the case that Facebook generates a stream of endless opportunities to compare ourselves to our peers — via their vacation and spouse pictures, their employment updates, and so on — and these comparisons stress us out and depress us. So it’s no surprise the authors used “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels” as part of the title of their paper. (Interestingly, even positive comparisons with others — that is, “Wow, I am doing way better than Phil” — seemed to be correlated with depressive symptoms. The researchers wrote that while this may seem surprising, it’s actually in line with past findings showing that all social comparisons are correlated with depressive symptoms.)

This was a correlational study, so the standard disclaimer applies: There could be other stuff that the researchers didn’t catch that is responsible for the connections they observed. And as with any study done on a group of college students, it’s fair to ask whether folks who aren’t in college might behave differently on, and react differently to, Facebook.

Those caveats aside, what does this mean for those of us who use Facebook a lot and are unlikely to be weaning ourselves off the service anytime soon? I asked Steers via email whether there might be a way for people on Facebook to be more conscious of their tendency to make make social comparisons — to not cut down on your frequency of use, in other words, but to use it in a less self-defeating way.

She was skeptical. “Social comparison is an automatic process,” she said. Rather, she advised a somewhat more reflective approach to Facebook overall. “I would advise heavy Facebook users who might be feeling more depressed to try to reflect on their experiences,” she said. “Facebook’s intended purpose is for people to interact and feel more positively as a result.  However, if you are experiencing the unintended consequence of feeling bad about yourself after using Facebook, maybe it’s time to step away from the keyboard.”

Of course, that’s always a challenge when your friend just posted a whole new batch of vacation photos.

The Connection Between Facebook and Unhappiness