by Stephanie Pappas
by Nestor L. Lopez-Duran
According to three new studies, Facebook can be tough on mental health, offering an all-too-alluring medium for social comparison and ill-advised status updates. While adding a friend on the social networking site can make people feel connected, having a lot of friends is likewise associated with feeling worse about one’s own life. The thread running through these findings is not that Facebook itself is harmful, but that it provides a place for people to indulge in self-destructive behavior, such as trumpeting their own weaknesses or comparing their achievements with those of others.
In research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychologists (SPSP) in San Diego, Mudra Mukesh and her co-author Dilney Goncalves found that when people think about the last time someone asked to friend them on Facebook, they get a boost in feelings of belonging and social connectedness.
But once they have collected all those friends, viewing their status updates is a downer. When asked how they felt about their place in life and their achievements, people with lots of Facebook friends gave themselves lower marks if they’d just viewed their friends’ status updates, compared with people who hadn’t recently surfed the site. For people with just a few friends, viewing status updates wasn’t a problem. “A small number of friends means a low probability of viewing others showing off,” Mukesh said. For people with many friends, however, the news feed turns into a parade of good news about friends’ lives: promotions, engagements, weddings and babies. Even if someone knows intellectually that people use Facebook to show off, all of this information can make them feel worse about their own achievements or lack thereof.
In another study presented at the SPSP conference, researchers at the University of Houston surveyed college students and found that time spent on Facebook is linked to depressive symptoms. This study was particularly conclusive about association between Facebook usage by young men and depression. “It appears as if males, when they socially compare themselves on Facebook, they tend to experience depressive symptoms,” Outside the digital realm, men often already compare themselves with one another. Facebook therefore appears to be a new medium for such competition.
People with low self-esteem view Facebook as a safer place to express themselves than in face-to-face interactions, according to new research published in the March issue of the journal of Psychological Science. All this venting may actually alienate friends. Researchers led by Amanda Forest of the University of Waterloo in Ontario collected recent status updates from 117 participants who also reported their average time spent on Facebook and answered questions to reveal their self-esteem levels. Next, the researchers had another group of participants read the status updates and rate how much they liked the person who wrote each. Unsurprisingly, people responded more positively to posters whose updates were positive.
The researchers then set up another experiment in which they collected recent status updates from 98 undergraduates and asked the students to submit the number of likes and number of comments on each. It turned out that for users with high self-esteem, a negative post garnered more responses than a positive one, presumably because those people’s friends were concerned about the out-of-character update. For users with low self-esteem, though, negative posts seemed to exhaust friends: They got few responses.
Acknowledging the pitfalls of Facebook and educating the public on its social implications may just be the best solution, according to the Instituto de Empresa’s Mukesh. She found that reminding people in the moment of what they already know — that people brag on Facebook — could ease the self-recriminations that come with hearing about friends’ accomplishments. “At the end of the day, have more friends; there’s no problem with that. Just be sure to remember that when you start feeling crappy about your life, think about the fact that you have a large number of friends and that increases your probability of viewing more ostentatious information,” Mukesh said. “So, it’s not you, it’s them.”
Like the school cafeteria, the movie theater, or the coffee break lounge, Facebook is a complex social system — a place where many positive and negative social interactions occur. But unlike more-traditional social contexts, Facebook and similar social networking sites are unique in at least two ways. They are highly impersonal: our interactions occur through the filter of a computer. In most Facebook interactions, we can’t hear the other person’s voice or see their facial expressions. Some researchers have shown that this impersonal type of communication decreases our inhibitions and thus we are more likely to say things that we would not say in person. If bullying is bad face-to-face, it can be vicious through the filter of a computer screen. Facebook also allows us to present a highly filtered and unrealistically positive picture of our lives. Facebook is the place where all relationships are perfect, lives are exciting, everyone is beautiful, and all meals are worthy of a picture. For those who already have a negative view of their own world, being exposed to such a never-ending parade of perfect lives can present a major blow to an already fragile inner world.
All of this makes social networking a potential risk factor for the development of depression. It is not surprising then that many people, from media personalities to clinicians to researchers, have suggested a link between Facebook and depression. The term “Facebook Depression” was popularized in response to an opinion piece published in the prestigious journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics . The authors urged caution in the use of Facebook by teens and children because of the possibility that Facebook may contribute to greater symptoms of depression.
But none of the research cited in this article actually examined whether there was a link between Facebook use and depression in teens (or any other group). In fact, there is little scientific evidence supporting the idea that Facebook can actually cause depression. Teague Simoncic, one of my former students, conducted an elegant study as part of her honors thesis to put this question to the test. She examined Facebook use in 245 college students. The study noted how often students used Facebook, how they used it, how many friends each person had, and how attached they were to Facebook. She then examined the students’ mental health functioning, including depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as several personality variables that are known to either protect against or increase the risk for depression.
The results, which we recently presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, were quite surprising. Facebook use was not associated with higher symptoms of depression. Likewise, Simoncic found no link between depression levels and other Facebook variables, such as attachment to Facebook or number of Facebook friends. In essence, she found no evidence that “Facebook Depression” is an issue for college students.
In some cases, Facebook use was related to lower levels of depression. Specifically, Simoncic wanted to examine whether the association between Facebook and depression was moderated by two key personality variables: extroversion and neuroticism. In teens and adults, extroversion and neuroticism are known to be associated with lower and higher risk for depression respectively. The question is then: can extroversion or neuroticism make us more or less susceptible to the potential negative effects of Facebook? Simoncic hypothesized that extroversion would be protective to the effects of Facebook and thus there would be no link between Facebook and depression among those with high levels of extroversion. In contrast, neuroticism was expected to make people more susceptible to the effects of Facebook, and we thus anticipated that those with high levels of neuroticism would show the strongest link between Facebook use and depression.
The exact opposite was true. Although extroversion played no role in the association between Facebook and depression, she found that Facebook appeared to be protective for those with high levels of neuroticism. That is, among those with low levels of neuroticism, there was no link between Facebook and depression. However, among those with high levels of neuroticism, greater Facebook use was associated with lower levels of depression! Although this study has some limitations, it is one of the first studies to actually examine whether Facebook is associated with higher levels of depression. The results simply do not support such a link. There are several interpretations for these findings, but overall these results do not suggest that Facebook Depression is a real phenomenon.
About the Issue
Point author: Stephanie Pappas is a Senior Writer for LiveScience, a science news website with content often syndicated to major news outlets. Her writing focuses primarily on current psychology and neuroscience research. This piece has been adapted from Stephanie’s article, “Facebook with Care: Social Networking Site Can Hurt Self Esteem,” which can be found on livescience.com.
Counterpoint author: Nestor L. Lopez-Duran is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on affective neuroendocrinology and adolescent depression.
Edited by: Michael Guisinger, Jennifer Liu, and Ryan Roberts
Cover by: Danyaal Rangwala