APR 15, 2015 11:12 AM PDT

Why Facebook Can Be Depressing, and What You Can Do About It

WRITTEN BY: Will Hector
Social comparison, the human behavior made unnaturally easy by social media apps like Facebook, is linked to depressive symptoms in a study by University of Houston researcher Mai-Ly Steers.

Before the Internet, this phenomenon was called "keeping up with the Joneses," and it occurred at a pace that could be more easily processed by the psyche. Social media has dramatically quickened the pace, also supporting comparison of only what the poster chooses to share as opposed to the observer getting a more balanced, in-person assessment.
Too much time spent comparing your life to the seemingly perfect lives of your
Steers' research on the topic is presented in the article, "Seeing Everyone Else's Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms" published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Melissa Carroll of the University of Houston, reports:

"Although social comparison processes have been examined at length in traditional contexts, the literature is only beginning to explore social comparisons in online social networking settings," said Steers, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at UH.

Steers conducted two studies to investigate how social comparison to peers on Facebook might impact users' psychological health. Both studies provide evidence that Facebook users felt depressed when comparing themselves to others.

"It doesn't mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand," said Steers.

The first study found an association between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms for both genders. However, the results demonstrated that making Facebook social comparisons mediated the link between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms for men only. Similarly, the second study found a relationship between the amount of time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms was mediated by social comparisons on Facebook. Unlike the first study, gender did not moderate these associations.

The concept of social comparison is not new. In fact, it has been studied in face-to-face contexts since the 1950's. However, engaging in social comparisons on online social media sites may make people feel even worse.

"One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare," Steers said. "You can't really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post. In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad. If we're comparing ourselves to our friends' ‘highlight reels,' this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives."

Steers said that people afflicted with emotional difficulties may be particularly susceptible to depressive symptoms due to Facebook social comparison after spending more time on medium. For already distressed individuals, this distorted view of their friends' lives may make them feel alone in their internal struggles, which may compound their feelings of loneliness and isolation.

"This research and previous research indicates the act of socially comparing oneself to others is related to long-term destructive emotions. Any benefit gained from making social comparisons is temporary and engaging in frequent social comparison of any kind may be linked to lower well-being," said Steers.

Steers hopes the results of these studies will help people understand that technological advances often possess both intended and unintended consequences. Further, she hopes her research will help guide future interventions that target the reduction of Facebook use among those at risk for depression.

Follow Will Hector: @WriteCompassion

(Source: University of Houston)
About the Author
  • Will Hector practices psychotherapy at Heart in Balance Counseling Center in Oakland, California. He has substantial training in Attachment Theory, Hakomi Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Psycho-Physical Therapy, and Formative Psychology. To learn more about his practice, click here: http://www.heartinbalancetherapy.com/will-hector.html
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