Does Facebook make us miserable?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: September 2013

Facebook has often indicated that its purpose is to connect people. But recently there have been some heated discussions about the impact of Facebook, given the website’s increasing influence on our lives. The debate is not anything new, as concerns that online social networks will replace physical social life has horrified social scientists.

A recent study by Michigan University scholar Ethan Kross suggests that Facebook is making people feel worse. Kross and his team collected information from 82 people five times a day, regarding their Facebook usage and the impact it had on their mood. The results showed that the more they used the site, the unhappier they felt.

Of course, this does not differ much from earlier studies into the impact of internet. Research conducted towards the end of the last century, when the internet was just about to begin its journey to what it is today showed that the use of the web depressed people.

It would only take common sense to understand some of the most obvious effects of Facebook.  Many people have noted that they do feel unhappy after seeing photos of their friends having a great time. According to a Time Magazine report that cited a research at two German Universities, going through friends’ happy photos made people envious and miserable.

This is the result of a common social-psychology issue called social comparison. In this case, the comparison is with people of the same level and this only serves increase unhappiness.

“When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook,” says John Jonides, a University of Michigan cognitive neuroscientist and a co-author in the initially mentioned research, according to NPR.

Facebook users are also constantly under pressure to show themselves off as doing well. This could be seen as result of social comparison.  As you see your friends doing well, there is a pressure on you to do the same, and hence the tendency to exaggerate online.

To be fair, most people do know that their friend’s posts like ‘I’m having so much fun’ may be far from the truth and be just an attempt to feel happy from making others think so. Yet, although a rational mind deciphers the truth, the emotional mind somehow finds it compelling to emulate the same behaviour.

Some people have also suggested that their Facebook persona is not at all like their real personality. On the positive, social networks may have given some introverts and socially anxious people a way to effectively communicate in a manner they are comfortable. But it has also given rise to a number of profiles which are just what their owners wish they were.

Then there is the issue of fake profiles and multiple identities. I personally know a person who created a fake id just to spy on her friends. Although this person is hardly what you would term socially anxious, the issue of comparison has certainly been of concern to her too.

It cannot be forgotten though that these sites do come with their share of privacy worries. This would only serve to increase anxiety and people may increasingly become insecure. The recent issues such as governments looking for private information will only serve to fuel this fear. One Facebook user recently said that she decided to quit the site after some stranger contacted her. Governments in many countries have reported that there are also cases of youngsters being lured into dangerous acts by deliberate organized criminals through social media.

There are also a lot of arguments and studies that counter findings of Facebook ill-effects. The New Yorker reports that a 2009 study showed that using Facebook made people happier. It also showed that the social network encourages trust and even political participation. Undoubtedly this would agree with the basic theory that human beings are wired to be social, and remain on the same page as ‘man is a social animal’.

These contradictions in study probably points to a missed aspect. Different people use Facebook differently. There are some who always have a tab with the site open in their office. Others access on their mobile phones, every now and then. There are also people who access the site once or twice a day, probably after checking emails in the evening.

It could be said that over indulgence in with Facebook that replaces traditional socializing methods may not be healthy. But then overindulgence in a lot of things is not considered healthy. Finding a balance is often the key to a lot of matters in life and Facebook may not be an exception.

There are also arguments that Facebook may be just another fad in the bigger perspective. This point cannot be rejected outright either. Historically, the world has seen a number of trends that have not lasted long enough to have a significant long term impact.

But the problem here is that over the past fifty to sixty years, the world has undergone more changes at a faster pace than that has been seen in the past 2000 years. Although the advancements in science and technology have increased the average lifespan of people, we now have less time because there is too many things to do.

Facebook may be considered a supplement to traditional socializing. It definitely cannot replace meeting people in physical world, but it can add to it, helping people meet and be in touch with others even when they don’t have time. Considering that our lives are only going to be increasingly busy, it would only make sense that more and more people enter the world of social networking media.

Last but not the least, don’t forget that Facebook is a business, and despite all the philanthropic claims, its main aim is to make profit. The more users there are the more money to the company and its shareholders.