In the last few months a number of people have told me that they’re taking breaks from Facebook (or other social media) because they believe that it’s making them increasingly unhappy; and I’ve been looking into what the research says about the effects these media have on emotional well-being. The studies show that when we use them to increase face-to-face contact with actual, three-dimensional humans, they enrich our lives. But when we spend a lot of time using them for other purposes they can have some very unsocial mental health consequences — including depression, low self-esteem, bitter jealousy, isolation, and loneliness.
The research has identified a couple of factors in this unhappiness. The first is what we can call the “comparing mind.” It’s easy to understand that when we compare our most ordinary moments with other people’s’ “greatest hits” – the smiley friends, the fabulous vacations, the party pics – we can feel envious and depressed. But what’s intriguing to me is that the research showed that social comparison in any direction led to depression. Whether a person was making upward, downward, or neutral social comparisons – they were all linked to a greater likelihood for depressive symptoms. How do we explain this finding?
Here’s my take: Facebook is, for many, an online vanity fair, a site where we can present our “virtual egos” (read “fake selves”) for admiration or approval by others who are doing exactly the same thing. Used in this way, it’s really about impression management. But when we use the medium to engage in narcissistic exhibitionism rather than to facilitate actual connections, the result is that, whether we judge ourselves as better than, less than, or equal to others, we don’t feel closer to them. The comparing mind doesn’t create intimacy; it fosters distance and separation.
Another factor linking Facebook use to depression is passive rather than active use of the medium. When people used it to communicate with friends, there was no relationship to depression; but when they spent more of their time passively scrolling through newsfeeds and other content rather than actively engaging with anyone, they felt disconnected, lonely and bored.
I believe there’s a third factor which I don’t think is being given due attention. The anonymity of Facebook is disinhibiting; it frees us to say things we’d never say face-to-face. It would be great if that meant feeling free to express affection, respect, love and admiration more directly than we might in person, but that is hardly what has happened. No one can fail to notice how much “otherizing” and hatred there is in the conversations. This toxic hostility is especially obvious in the political debates. I know that these discussions are unusually intense right now because we’re in an election year. Still, when I read some of the threads, even from people who support candidates and positions with which I agree, the ugliness, shaming, sarcasm, accusations, name-calling, bullying and self-righteous rage leave me feeling like I need a shower. Hateful speech is painful for the speaker, not just for its target, and when we attack and demonize others (in the name of all that’s Good and True), we increase our own unhappiness. Why is there such an irresistible draw to this kind of anti-social interaction? Maybe it’s because when we spend too much time in the trance of the virtual world we can begin to mistake it for the real one, so that we start to believe that posting rants on Facebook is the same thing as actually working for a better world. The cure for the inevitable frustration and unhappiness that this causes us is straightforward: to turn off the computer, leave the house, and find ways of connecting face-to-face with real people who are taking concrete action in the world to resolve the issues that concern us.
Come to think of it, turning off the computer might be good advice for a lot of us. Today one out of every 13 people on the planet are Facebook users, and more than half of these log on every day. Among 18-to-34 year olds, nearly half log on minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. When so many people mistake updating, posting and “liking” for intimacy, is it any wonder that so many also feel restless, lonely, and unhappy?