Newsletter: September 2013
Facebook and your Mental Health
by Sarah Richardson, Psy.D.
Recently, researchers have published several studies linking frequent Facebook use to life dissatisfaction. One article in particular by Ethan Kross and his colleagues, examined how young adults’ mood and emotional well-being was impacted after using Facebook on a given day. They asked participants to rate their mood by answering questions such as: “How do you feel right now” and “How much have you used Facebook since the last time we asked?” Facebook users who reported a moderate to high level of real life social interaction experienced a decrease in emotional well-being after using Facebook. A further study by Hanna Krasnova and her colleagues reported that going on Facebook made about one in three participants less satisfied with their own lives and more envious of others. As a result, they found that Facebook users attempted to depict themselves as having personal accomplishments and life successes, sometimes exaggerating their actual life events online.
Why might using Facebook have these negative psychological effects? As hypothesized by Dr. Krasnova and her team, viewing others’ positive life events such as vacations, marriage, or pictures of physically attractive individuals can inspire what psychologists call social comparison. Social comparison theory, first developed by Festinger in 1954, states that individuals tend to use others as a benchmark to compare themselves to, as a way to self-evaluate. This natural tendency, however, can go one of two ways. Downward social comparison, for example, comparing oneself to those less fortunate, can lead to positive psychological effects such as reframing one’s own situation in a more optimistic way. Upward social comparisons, likely to happen when viewing a flourishing peer’s Facebook profile or an old classmate’s wedding photos, may cause people to try to find similarities with those in the perceived superior group. But if people feel they don’t measure up, this can inspire feelings of competitiveness, inferiority and wishing for life circumstances to be different.
Envy, or resenting the qualities and achievements of others, is a natural human emotion. Melanie Klein, a famous early psychoanalyst, described envy as “the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable – the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it.” People are likely to deny their envy and may outwardly feel guilty or shameful about coveting what another has, or feeling they are more deserving of success than their online buddies. It is important to acknowledge that social comparison, envy, and even schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others), are common emotional experiences, even if most people are reticent to admit it. By accepting your own reactions to seeing the news of your “friends” on Facebook, both positive and negative, you are one step closer to recognizing what your reaction might mean. Maybe there are circumstances in your life that you would like to be different and can work toward changing. Or maybe making others feel envious is exactly what the person posting their successes had in mind.
Spending time on Facebook is certainly not an unhealthy pastime if used in moderation. But despite the continual growth of Facebook and social networking websites creating more frequent online social interactions, the need for connection with others cannot be met solely through virtual relationships. If you find yourself trolling online for multiple hours a day or searching through your ex-boyfriend’s honeymoon pics, it may be time to reevaluate the role of Facebook in your life. The next time you want to feel socially connected, consider looking for events in a local newspaper or even going to a public group of people with common interests, such as those found on Meetup.com. You are likely to feel more satisfied after doing something that you enjoy, instead of sitting online wishing you did.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.
Klein, M. (1984). Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963. London: The Hogarth Press.
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D.S., et al. (2013). Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069841
Krasnova, H., Wenninger,, H., Widjaja,, T., and Buxmann, P. (2013). Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction? Institute of Information Systems, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.