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Why Facebook Can Make You Ill

The Dark Side of Social Media

A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a colleague in a quaint little coffee shop. Let’s call my colleague Angela. While waiting in line for our orders, Angela took out her phone and checked it for messages. She must have checked Facebook too because within a few minutes, she turned to me and showed me the screen of her iPhone. “Did you see Person A’s FB post?” she asks. “Check out her new job! And her new apartment!” she continues. “She looks so happy. I wish I had a job like that. Ugh, and I want her apartment too!”

We talked a bit about our mutual friend’s success and how happy our friend seemed. It was a positive conversation at first, until I stated noticing some negative tones from Angela. Suddenly, Angela started yearning for our friend’s life – pining over her accomplishments and “wonderful life”. I found this behavior unusual since I know Angela very well. She is extremely accomplished and is very satisfied and happy with her life. So this made me wonder: What was it about that Facebook post that made Angela suddenly dissatisfied with her life?

Facebook use can definitely have many social and psychological benefits such as social inclusion and relationship maintenance. However, it is important to recognize that Facebook can have a dark side as well. In fact, recent studies have shown that Facebook use can potentially disrupt an individual’s happiness and mental health, quite like the way it disrupted Angela’s life satisfaction. For example, research done by Steers, Wickham, and Acitelli provided evidence that the use of Facebook can be linked to depressive symptoms.

How can Facebook disrupt a person’s happiness and mental health? Research points us towards the phenomenon of frequent upward social comparisons.

Frequent “Upward” Social Comparisons:

Social comparison is the innate tendency for people to compare themselves with others on abilities and attitudes they deem important. Researchers believe that humans have this innate drive to evaluate their own abilities because we naturally desire to have a clearer, less ambiguous, and more accurate view of ourselves.

But many of us know that comparing ourselves to others can cause us unhappiness. In fact, research has shown that both the frequency and direction of social comparisons can be linked to negative mental health outcomes. Specifically, studies have shown that the mere act of frequently comparing oneself to others is related to long-term destructive emotions. Similarly, constantly seeing yourself as inferior to others (also known as “upward” social comparison) is linked to greater depressive symptoms. This is in constant to “downward” social comparisons, where people evaluate themselves in a better, more positive light.

Unfortunately, Facebook can contribute to frequent upward social comparisons. First, Facebook’s platform provides its users with significantly more opportunities to engage in social comparisons, thereby possibly increasing the frequency of comparisons. Why is this the case? This is because every time a user logs into Facebook, they are inadvertently exposed to a continuous stream of information such as status updates, pictures, videos, messages, and many more. Researchers believe that these Facebook activities may serve as stimuli for individuals to automatically engage in frequent comparisons as a way to evaluate their personal and social worth. Simply stated, the mere act of spending time in Facebook might give a person more and more opportunities to evaluate themselves against other people.

Second, apart from constantly being flooded with new information about other people’s lives, Facebook opened the doors to many new types of social comparisons that did not exist before. Prior to FB, social comparisons often occurred through face-to-face contact. But Facebook has introduced entirely new metrics that people can potentially use to compare themselves against one another, such as the number of “likes” or comments on a person’s page. And perhaps most destructively, Facebook also introduced other quantitative ways of measuring social capital. As a vivid example, Facebook can publicly announce the exact number of friends you have in your Facebook network. Prior to Facebook, the concept of social capital was more ambiguous – after all, who keeps track of the exact number of friends you have? With Facebook, this calculation is public and automatic.

Lastly, Facebook can increase the incidence of “upward” comparisons because it can exploit a person’s natural tendency for impression management. Impression management refers to the process by which individuals attempt to control the impressions others form of them. Since the impressions of others can have powerful implications on the way a person is perceived, evaluated, or treated, it is common for individuals to want to control how others see and experience them. In fact, research has shown that people tend to portray themselves as happier than they actually are – even if it doesn’t match reality. But worst of all, studies show that Facebook users may actually engage in more impression management because people in non face-to-face environments (such as FB) have greater social distance and thus, greater ability to accentuate positive characteristics. Unfortunately, if FB users are more likely to highlight positive events, the greater the chances that other users will see distorted and possibly highly idealized realities. This can potentially increase upward social comparisons.

So what’s a person to do? Should you avoid Facebook altogether? Not necessarily. I’d suggest:

1. Increase your awareness. Be aware of people’s natural tendency for social comparison and impression management. It’s extremely common, so be hyperaware of how often you engage in them and know that others are certainly engaging in these behaviors as well!

2. Real versus Ideal. Know that these are two entirely different concepts that can easily be confused for one another. The perfect posts that appear “real” to you may very well be idealized and distorted versions of that person’s life. After all, majority of people do not post all the unpleasant and imperfect things that happen in their lives.

3. Possibly limit your use. If you really can’t control the frequency and direction of your social comparisons, perhaps it’s best to limit your opportunities to engage in comparisons in the first place. I’d recommend reducing your FB time until you can consciously address numbers 1 and 2 above. Once you have a better hold of this, gradually increase your exposure to Facebook again - but always keep in mind that Facebook certainly has a dark side.