Facebook Use Undermines Happiness, Study Finds

Facebook Use Undermines Happiness, Study FindsSocial media is an integral part of the modern world, and anybody versed in human nature knows that we are often described as “social animals.” It would follow from this assumption that since websites like Facebook allow us to interact with our friends at times when we would otherwise be alone, and open our interactions up to vastly larger numbers of people, that using social media would make us feel better. However, recent research on the topic at the University of Michigan has revealed the opposite, meaning that people who use Facebook more regularly will be in a lesser mood that those who use it more infrequently. Finding out more about the research helps one understand how the relationship was identified and what it could imply for how we use social media.

"On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection," said social psychologist Ethan Kross, a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. "But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result—it undermines it."

"This is a result of critical importance because it goes to the very heart of the influence that social networks may have on people's lives," said U-M cognitive neuroscientist John Jonides, who also took part in the study.

The Study

The research, published in the journal PLoS One, recruited 82 people with an average age of 20. The participants completed questionnaires to help determine their existing life satisfaction, their rating on a depression scale, their self esteem, what they get from social interactions and their motivation for using Facebook. After these initial questionnaires, over the 14-day study period, each received five text messages per day (at random times) with links to a survey containing questions about current mood, degree of worry, loneliness, Facebook use since the last check-in and real world interactions since the same time. At the end of the study period, they repeated the life satisfaction and loneliness scale, and the researchers collected data on their number of Facebook friends.

The aim was to assess two types of life satisfaction. The first of these is known as “affective” well-being, and can be simply defined as how the individual feels at the moment the question was asked. The other type is “cognitive” well-being, which can be thought of as more of a general rating of the individual’s satisfaction with his or her life overall.

What They Found

The researchers found a result that will surprise many people: Facebook use had a negative effect on both measures of well-being. Between any two given text messages and resultant surveys, the amount of time each participant used Facebook was directly related to the size of the decrease in their affective well-being. In other words, the researchers found that somebody who used Facebook for an hour would feel worse (compared to the individual’s previous score) than somebody who used it for only half an hour. Somehow, it appears that using Facebook makes people feel worse.

Similarly, the average Facebook use per day measured over the 14-day period was related to a decline in cognitive well-being. This again was a direct link—somebody who uses Facebook more hours a day will be less satisfied with his life, even when the researchers controlled for baseline levels.

There are many other potential explanations for this apparent relationship, and the researchers investigated these, too. One thing that could have affected the results is if people were more likely to use Facebook if they were in a bad mood, and another possibility is that people who are lonelier use the site more often. The researchers found, however, that people used Facebook just as much regardless of mood, and that although people do use the site more when they’re lonely, it didn’t affect the overall findings when it was controlled for mathematically. The researchers also asked about face-to-face interactions and found that although real-life interactions had no effect on cognitive well-being, they had a positive effect on affective well-being, meaning that they made people feel better over the short term.

Conclusion: What’s the Explanation?

The result from the research is somewhat puzzling, since it implies some inherent difference between interaction via social media and interaction in real life. The researchers weren’t entirely sure why the effect was observed, but it was hypothesized that social media encourages people to make comparisons between themselves and others, which can have damaging effects.

The overall result from this study is a surprising one, and it’s a lesson that just because Facebook is overtly “social,” doesn’t mean it will always have an emotional benefit. More research will undoubtedly reveal more about the link in the future, but for now it can serve as a reminder that using Facebook to compare your overall life status with that of your friends might make you see your own life as worse. Perhaps social media doesn’t create the effect, but how we decide to use the information we find there does.

Posted on September 5th, 2013
Posted in Mental Health

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