How Social is Social Media?
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
Better technology, faster and omnipresent internet connection, and the existence of social networking sites have changed the way we communicate with each other and what we share about ourselves. If you – like me – have a Facebook account you may have shared information with people that you haven’t seen in years and that you probably will not ever encounter face-to-face for a coffee or an old-fashioned chat in your life again. At the same time, you possibly are a constant consumer of pieces and bits of other people’s lives that they decide to share on Facebook. People are spending a substantial amount of time on social networking sites such as Facebook: On average 1.72 hours daily (according to a survey by globalwebindex.net between 2012 and 2014). In recent years, there has been a considerable number of studies looking into the effects of social media use on our wellbeing – particularly the mental health of young adults. In today’s post, I give an overview of some intriguing findings in this research area and highlight the positive and negative effects social networking sites can have on wellbeing and mental health.
Before you continue reading, let’s start with a quick activity. Please scribble down the answers to the following two questions: Why do you have a Facebook account? What do you do when you log on to Facebook? While reading this post reflect on your answers as I describe different research findings.
In turns out that one important reason why people use Facebook is because they want to connect with other people. In fact, a study shows that people tend to use Facebook as a coping strategy when they feel disconnected and if restrained from checking Facebook during a 48-hr period, people who felt disconnected made heavier use of Facebook in the following unrestricted time period (1). Thus, the goal of feeling connected can be achieved through Facebook use. However, research has shown that the way Facebook is used paired with the negative feeling of envy is associated with depression in university students (2). The social rank theory of depression highlights the crucial role of social competition and comparison for the development of depression. On Facebook, competition and comparison are ubiquitous: When browsing through the news feed, one is bombarded with status updates and photos which can lead to feelings of envy which, in turn, may contribute to depression.
Tandoc, Ferrucci, and Duffy (2) looked at this more closely and found that one crucial factor was associated with the build-up of Facebook envy: Facebook surveillance. Facebook surveillance is the passive use of Facebook where people only read the news feed, check other people’s status updates, view other people’s photos, and browse other people’s timelines – without actively engaging or interacting with other people. In a nutshell, stalking instead of talking. The authors showed that Facebook surveillance behavior leads to depression symptoms if it triggers feelings of envy. If envy is not triggered, surveillance behavior can actually lessen depression symptoms.
In two impressive studies, Verduyn et al. (3) confirmed that indeed passive, surveillance behavior, but not active Facebook usage (e.g., posting updates and comments, sending messages) leads to decreases in wellbeing. In one of their experiments, they asked participants either to use Facebook actively or passively for 10 minutes. Approximately 9 hours later, participants were sent a survey asking them about their wellbeing. Only the group that had used Facebook passively before showed a decrease in wellbeing whereas the group that used Facebook actively showed no such pattern. In a clever follow-up study, that used an experience sampling method where participants were prompted with questions through text messages at several times during the day. The questions asked about participants’ active and passive Facebook use, their wellbeing, feelings of envy as well as their face-to-face interactions with other people. The results clearly show that passive Facebook use is associated with declines in wellbeing and this is heavily mediated through Facebook envy. In contrast, face-to-face interaction had an uplifting effect on wellbeing which suggests that communicating with friends directly seems invaluable for our wellbeing.
To recap: Passively scrolling through the news feed or looking at your friend’s pictures and updates without actively interacting with them, can bear the danger of building up envy which makes you feel inferior. This can lead to depressive and negative moods. However, the social mechanisms on Facebook are as complex and multifaceted as in direct interactions between people. A quite controversial experiment on Facebook by Kramer, Guillory, and Hancock (4), for instance, showed that emotional states can transfer from one person to the other. For one week, they manipulated the kind of emotionally connotated content that participants would see in their news feed. “Participants” in this experiment were not aware of this manipulation – thus, controversial. Some people were shown fewer positive posts and some were shown fewer negative posts. The authors predicted that people who were exposed to fewer negative posts would express more positive feelings in their own status updates and people who were exposed to fewer positive posts would express more negative feelings in their own posts. That is exactly what they found: Perceiving more positive content in one’s news feed led people to express more positive content, too. However, increased consumption of negatively connotated content resulted in more negative status updates. Thus, emotional states are contagious – even on Facebook.
What are the practical implications from the research presented here?
a) Be aware of how you and your peers use social networking sites like Facebook: Do you mainly passively consume information or do you stop to engage actively in social interaction? If your goal is to connect to people, make an effort to actively do so.
b) Pay attention to changes in mood after engaging in heavy social media use: Do you feel down, depressed, or bothered after Facebook or social media use? Call a friend and talk to her about it.
c) From time to time try to unplug and take breaks to engage in direct social interaction. And when you do, give the person in front of you your undivided attention.
(1) Sheldon, K. M., Abad, N., & Hinsch, C. (2011). A two-process view of Facebook use and relatedness need-satisfaction: Disconnection drives use, and connection rewards it. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 766-775.
(2) Tandoc, E. C., Ferrucci, P., & Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 139-146.
(3) Verduyn et al. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 480-488.
(4) Kramer, A. D., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8788-8790.