Is Facebook Making You Unhappy?

I doubt I’m in danger of being trampled by an uber-networked hoard rushing to unplug at the sight of the above headline. And yes, there’s a certain amount of irony in the fact that many may be reading this post on Facebook. Nevertheless, research argues that users may at least need to think a bit differently about how they spend their time on the site.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova surveyed several studies of internet and Facebook usage. The results regarding the latter in particular appear mixed. Some researchers found that participating in the social networking site makes users happier, increases social trust and engagement, and encourages greater political participation. Others suggest that virtual social connection—something part and parcel of Facebook—can help alleviate stress and pain.

However—and you knew this was coming—other studies suggest a different picture. A new study from psychologist Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan found that the more time users spent on Facebook, the more their unhappiness increased. Other studies pointed to increased feelings of jealousy/envy. What’s behind this?:

Psychologist Beth Anderson and her colleagues argue, in a recent review of Facebook’s effects, that using the network can quickly become addictive, which comes with a nagging sense of negativity that can lead to resentment of the network for some of the same reasons we joined it to begin with. We want to learn about other people and have others learn about us—but through that very learning process we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves that we feel we need to continuously maintain. “It may be that the same thing people find attractive is what they ultimately find repelling,” said the psychologist Samuel Gosling, whose research focuses on social-media use and the motivations behind social networking and sharing. 

A few things to think about in light of all this:

1. Facebook, like all technology, is neither the source of all evil or the path to ultimate happiness. Human beings routinely misuse and distort good and useful things to produce negative results, whether intentionally or not. So it is here. Facebook usage can lead to anything from deeper relationships to subtle soul erosion. (See an earlier take on Apple here.)

2. So what can we do to foster positive Facebook usage? According to article, the research suggests that active users—those who create and engage with content as oppose to merely browsing the site—exhibited less envy and more feelings of happiness and social bonding. While far from tying everything up with a neat little bow, this does seem to correspond with the biblical value of actively cultivating meaningful relationships with and, in short, loving one another. If we’re attempting to further those goals through Facebook and other social media, we’ll be more likely to stay on the right path.

3. It’s also helpful to remember that a person’s Facebook page isn’t a full reflection of their life and experiences. Just as people tend tidy up and put on their best face for visitors to their physical homes, they tend to do something similar online. This makes comparisons with your own life, almost always problematic to begin with, even more potentially self-destructive.

4. Some practical questions, then, for when you’re using the site: Am I really engaged with what I’m doing? Am I becoming more dissatisfied with my life right now? Should I be? Am I connecting with others and furthering relationships? Am I learning something useful? While much more could be said about all of these, suffice it to say here that the answers to those questions will certainly help us figure out whether our time on Facebook is well spent in a given situation.

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