Social Media: Are Our Friends Making us Miserable?

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We've all been there.  We had a rough day (maybe two) and have nothing to do, so we sit down with a snack or a drink and login to Facebook to see what our friends are up to.  Todd went to Cancun.  Emma posted pictures of the kids at Disney World.  Your old roommate got a promotion.  James just finished his PhD.  Haley and Matt just bought a new house that looks like it was featured in Better Homes and Gardens.  You take a look down at your sweatpants, scan the mess in the living room, and wonder...am I the least interesting and successful person I know?

Social media has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and interact with one another.  Just a couple decades ago, we looked at pictures in photo albums and shared the details of our lives in letters or conversations, but social networking sites like Facebook have allowed us to share more information about our lives, to more people, instantaneously...and we're doing it in droves.  Recent data shows 1.1 Billion Facebook users are active monthly and 665 million users are on Facebook every single day (Constine, 2013).  Most research has focused on how Facebook use affects adolescents, and with good reason.  However, little research has focused on how Facebook use affects adults.  Does social networking make us feel more connected to our friends, more fulfilled, or make us miserable?

Recent research suggests social networking might be doing us more harm than good.  Among the findings was the revelation that the longer users were on the Facebook, the more likely they were to believe others were happier and had better lives than them (Chou & Edge, 2012).  This effect was even stronger in correlation with the number of "friends" a user accumulated who they don't know very well.  So why is Facebook making some of us miserable?  There are a number of potential contributing factors working against us. 

First, young adults entering the world face the challenge of figuring out what success and happiness really mean.  In high school or college, for example, we may base these ideas on athletic accomplishments, popularity, GPA, or the school we attend, but what does a happy, successful young adult look like (Jay, 2012)?  How much money should they make?  Should they be married?  What kind of house should they live in?  In the absence of concrete ideas about concepts like this, we typically use social comparison to determine where we stand relative to others (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).  This obviously isn't a new phenomenon, but it's possible social media exacerbates the already challenging prospects we face with satisfaction and deprivation during upward social comparison (Collins, 1996).  Why?  First, Facebook allows us to carefully craft the image and lifestyle we portray to others.  We can pick the very best moments of our lives, the best pictures, the best vacations, and use them to define who we are.  As observers of this information, we're presented with the very best they have to offer.  Second, Facebook subjects us to countless opportunities for upward social comparison in just a few minutes, whereas it may have taken weeks, months, or years to gather and process that much information before social media.  Third, due to fundamental attribution error, we tend to translate the positive images, stories, and news about our friends into internal attributions in the individual.  In effect, a new house, promotion, or vacation are processed as "happiness" in the person we're observing (Chou & Edge, 2012).  Fourth, and perhaps most interesting, the less we know about some of our "friends", the more likely we are to perceive their lives as happier or better.  This effect may be explained by the idea that we get a more balanced view of people we know well and interact with (Chou & Edge, 2012).  We may know they are struggling with a health issue, having difficulties in their marriage, or generally understand that their lives are imperfect, just like ours.  When we compare ourselves to "friends" on Facebook we don't know very well or interact with regularly, we're left with only the salient information...their amazing, happy, successful life.  With all these elements working against us (and more), it's not hard to imagine how we can become envious or even depressed with extended exposure.

Clearly, research on how social networking impacts the moods, attitudes, and behaviors of adults will be a growing trend in the coming years.  There are so many variables to consider that it's impossible to determine how sites like Facebook truly impact people of all ages and walks of life.  In fact, at least one study disputes the Facebook Envy/Depression findings among a group of 18-23 year olds (Merideth, 2012).  Still, we know the effect is present in at least some people.  Meg Jay- a therapist who works primarily with emerging and young adults- recently compared herself to a "priest who hears Facebook confessions" (2012).  I'm certainly not qualified to offer any advice on the matter, but the potential phenomenon of "Facebook Depression" will be a truly intriguing subject to follow as more research is completed.  In the interim, if you're feeling the effects of Facebook envy, know that you're not alone.  Most of us are just sitting around in our sweatpants wondering why our lives can't be as interesting as yours.

 

References:

Chou, H. G., & Edge, N. (2012). ''They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am'': The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others' Lives.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 15(2), 117-121.

Collins, R. L. (1996). For Better Or Worse: The Impact Of Upward Social Comparison On Self-evaluations..Psychological Bulletin119(1), 51-69.

Constine, J. (2013, May 17). Facebook's Growth Since IPO In 12 Big Numbers | TechCrunch. TechCrunch. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://techcrunch.com/2013/05/17/facebook-growth/

Jay, M. (2012, March 30). Just Say No to Facebook Social Comparisons!.Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-defining-decade/201203/just-say-no-facebook-social-comparisons

Meredith, L. (2012, July 10). 'Facebook depression' is disputed by study - Health - Mental health | NBC News. NBC News. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/48138463/ns/health-mental_health/t/facebook-depression-disputed-study/#.Ubi4wvmkqAl

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems(2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

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3 Comments

Your post is interesting, original and fun to read. It seems in fact that websites such as Facebook or Google+ are still fairly recent and maybe like new drugs still on trial. We will have to wait to assess the negative side effects. Yet, it appears that some effects are already turning up. I must confess that I have totally felt that way before, namely virtually depressed especially after seeing the dazzling pictures of my high school friends on vacation who have not gained a pound in all those years, while I am in my pajamas looking worn out staring at my computer. I am sure that they do not spend that much time on vacation and that they have their share of suffering such as dieting or working hard. Everything you say about the Facebook experience makes sense and the research you found on the subject looks very interesting and I will definitely look into it some more.

I love this post! I also do think that social media is partially responsible for the increased desire to "live the perfect life." What is that perfect life? 50 years ago it was having a family in a quiet town, and owning your own home and car. Now it is constant vacations to remote places, making millions, and having labels you can show off on mass social media sites. It has become a sort of addiction. It has also become a lie. While you sit there in your sweatpants and wonder what you are doing wrong while you look at your friends pages, you are not considering the fact that what people put up on their pages is what they WANT the whole world to see. The goofy pictures that Aunt Marge took 15 years ago that always somehow made it out at the family get together is in a sense lost, because we now have the power to make sure the world only sees the good things; the pictures where we look perfect. I once heard someone call it the "Facebook reality." I have to agree. There is reality, you know, the one where we go to work, sit in traffic, spill coffee on ourselves, get yelled at because we are late on a deadline, get home, have a stack of bills, and fall asleep with a three years old's toe up your nose. Then, there is Facebook reality. That's the one where everyone's hair is perfect, house is perfect, relationship is perfect, kids are always clean and well behaved, and they are rich. Through this desire to display only perfection, we are losing the ability to except imperfection.

I remember reading some studies a while back on this exact idea. I completely agree that it can have a depressing effect on people. However, I like to think of it more as a roller coaster of emotions. Seeing a picture of you, your best friend, and your girlfriend on a cruise is a high note. It sparks happy emotions. On the other hand seeing your ex friend and with your ex girlfriend on vacation can do the opposite. Sites like facebook are dangerous. They have the capability to both cheer you up and break your heart instantly. People are to emotionally attached at all times to too many things. I wish Facebook would go down every so often for maintenance just so people would shake loose a little bit and remember what life was like before the internet. Very well done post.

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