Over the past decade, the impact of social media has captured the attention of academics and ordinary users, who want to understand how social media affects psychological health and relationships.
Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform, according to a 2014 report by Pew research. The average American spends 40 minutes per day on Facebook, the company reported. Users are curious about Facebook’s impact.
“Many people have wondered, ‘What does Facebook do to us? What does it mean in our lives?’” said Margaret Duffy, a professor at the University of Missouri, who teaches strategic communication.
Researchers are finding that to have a healthy relationship with Facebook, users should spend more time interacting and communicating, and less time comparing social status and seeking attention.
“Like with most things, it’s complicated,” said Gwendolyn Seidman, professor of social psychology at Albright College and blogger for Psychology Today. “There are ways to use Facebook that can be helpful, foster better relationships and make you feel better. There are ways that it can be terrible, make you feel terrible and damage your relationships.”
Like, don’t lurk
Duffy conducted a study among college students to examine the relationship between Facebook use and depression. The study, published last month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (paywall), revealed that Facebook use is associated with depression, but only when users experience envy.
“Facebook users are exposed to successes, material goods, positive relationships and other information that other users share on Facebook. Exposure to these pieces of positive information about others can lead to feelings of envy,” the study's authors wrote.
Envy increases with “surveillance use” of Facebook, which Duffy defined as “lurking and not interacting, watching other people post things about their best selves, like vacation photos or wedding photos.”
Surveillance use is not always harmful, the study found. For some people, looking at friends' profiles can even relieve depression, but when surveillance use causes envy, it becomes harmful.
If Facebook users are more aware of the potential hazards, they may be able to recognize feelings of envy and either limit their Facebook usage or change the ways they use Facebook, the study authors wrote.
Though more research is needed, Duffy believes that more interactive Facebook use is generally healthier.
With interactive Facebook use, “you’re exchanging information and ideas, you’re having fun, you’re catching up with what people have been up to and you’re not simply watching others’ success and then feeling as if you’re coming up short,” she said.
Facebook profile effect
Duffy’s study found that many Facebook users avoid sharing negative information about themselves, and, as a result, heavy Facebook users are getting an unrealistic view of others' lives. Feeling that others' experiences are always positive contributes to Facebook envy.
The study's authors speculated that sharing words of encouragement, rather than comparing social status, could reduce Facebook-related depression.
While spending time with her college-age students, Duffy observed that some of them view Facebook as a chore because they feel obligated to make their Facebook profiles the best possible self-representation.
“I’ve got to keep my profile updated because I have to present my best self … but I’m really starting to hate it,” Duffy said, describing the attitude she noticed.
Sarah Sakha, a first-year student at Princeton University who has written about social media for the Daily Princetonian, agreed that she and other young adults feel pressure to present an idealized self on Facebook.
“We want to keep our profiles pristine and enviable. It’s like LinkedIn but in Facebook form,” she said in an interview. “We want to impress ourselves and others with these high standards that we create.”
Duffy said she noticed while interacting with her students that some find a “more authentic” experience with social media platforms that are not designed to create a profile like Facebook’s.
She said a lot of her students enjoy sending ugly or goofy pictures of themselves through Snapchat so they can share a laugh without having that ridiculous selfie become part of their “permanent record” on the Internet.
Duffy is looking for ways to study the ways platforms other than Facebook might have different effects on psychological health.
Seeking and giving validation
Seeking authenticity on Facebook can have its drawbacks, according to a study by Seidman of Albright College. She measured Facebook users’ desire to express their “true self” online and compared that measure to Facebook behavior.
The “true self” is defined as “traits people think they possess, aspects of themselves that they think are real but are often hidden,” Seidman said. People differ in how much they desire to express a “true self” on Facebook, and Seidman measured those differences.
People who place a high value on expressing their true self use Facebook for “general self-disclosure, emotional disclosure, attention-seeking and acceptance-seeking,” the study found. They post more often in ways that are more personally revealing.
At the same time, “When we asked them about the extent to which they use Facebook to show that they care about other people, they didn’t differ from others,” Seidman said. “They were about average in terms of how much they tried to connect with others, but they were seeking more acceptance via Facebook.”
The study found that more posting and more self-disclosure did not lead to more Facebook acceptance. Facebook users who rate high for expressing the true self did not receive more likes or responses to their posts.
“They’re putting more of themselves out there, in terms of being more revealing, but they’re not getting any more stuff back from other people,” Seidman said.
In other words, when people perceive that others are using Facebook to seek attention, they may not respond.
“The problem is that if you are putting yourself out there, and you’re not getting the reinforcement that you want, it could potentially be destructive,” Seidman said.
She suggests finding a balance between seeking validation and validating others.
“People seek closeness to others for both altruistic and egoistic reasons,” according to the study. “One can express caring and support for friends via Facebook, and one can also have one’s own needs for acceptance and validation fulfilled by others on Facebook.”
Both Seidman and Duffy said they think mutual support and validation make Facebook relationships healthier, although an understanding of healthy social media use is still developing.