Using Facebook makes people sadder, at least according to some research. But just what is it about the social network that takes a hit on our mood? A study of the different ways of interacting with the site now offers an answer: Grazing on the content of other people’s idealized lives may make reality painful.
Scientists have long debated Facebook’s impact on users’ in-the-moment mood as well as their deeper satisfaction with life. Some studies have found that the site makes us happier; others, sadder.
One of the problems is that most studies were cross-sectional, taking a snapshot of people at one point of time. But that makes it difficult to separate our use of Facebook from the many other factors known to affect well-being, from overwork to romantic meltdowns. An August 2013 study led by Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, sidestepped this problem by studying people’s use of Facebook over time, surveying them about their well-being five times per day for 2 weeks. The conclusion was that the more you use Facebook, the sadder you get.
That study generated an enormous amount of attention—and bad press for Facebook—becoming one of the most cited, blogged, and tweeted papers of 2013. But the results offered no clue to what it is about the social network, or how people are using it, that might have this negative effect.
Since then, a collaboration of labs including Kross’s has tried to tease apart the mechanisms. Rather than just studying people’s well-being and their use of Facebook over time, the researchers performed an “intervention,” having subjects repeatedly visit a lab in Ann Arbor and use their personal Facebook accounts in specific ways. After all, interaction with Facebook consists of a whole set of activities, from browsing photos and “liking” websites to directly interacting with others through messages and comments.
Last week at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco, California, Kross shared a sneak preview of his team’s results. Their findings suggest that there is no effect on well-being if one “actively” uses Facebook. When subjects directly interacted with the social network by posting status updates, sharing content, and messaging others, their mood stayed the same over the course of a day. But the negative impact on well-being that Kross discovered in his 2013 study reappeared for individuals who were made to “passively” use the site—just browsing through photographs of other people’s happy moments, reading people’s conversations, and not contributing anything.
“Using Facebook is not bad for well-being per se,” Kross concluded, but “grazing” its content is. Possible reasons for this were bounced around by the audience of psychologists. For example, one theory holds that people post idealized versions of themselves on Facebook, and comparing those to your own real-world life is toxic if you don’t take part in the online theater. As for the longer term effect on life satisfaction, “the jury is still out,” he said. (The study is now under review at a journal, Kross says.)
“This kind of intervention study is exactly what we need more of,” says Megan Moreno, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington who uses Facebook data to study adolescent health and well-being. “What I want to know next is how this negative impact maps to some of the signs of depression we’ve been tracking.” If improving people’s well-being is as easy as encouraging active online interactions and discouraging passive browsing, “that would be amazing.”