You may remember the “Facebook is making us unhappy” headlines that were popping up just about everywhere last year, and like most people, you probably wondered if the news wasn’t just a little overhyped.
Happiness picture from Shutterstock
The University of Michigan study, which was responsible for all the hype, found that the more people used Facebook, the worse off they were in terms of moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction.
But to make things even more confusing, a study from the University of Texas at Austin found the exact opposite to be true — Facebook can actually make us happier by increasing social trust and engagement.
So what’s going on here?
The problem, according to research scientist Moira Burke from Facebook’s data science team, is not Facebook itself (or any other social network for that matter), but rather how it is used.
Burke’s research indicates that passive engagement on social media, such as spending a lot of time observing other people’s interactions as opposed to actively participating, can indeed lead to increased feelings of loneliness.
However, it also shows that directed communication such as chatting, sending messages or commenting on status updates or photos can lead to greater well-being.
Earlier this year, the same University of Michigan researchers reached a similar conclusion after they conducted a follow-up study.
At the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, lead researcher and psychologist Ethan Kross explained that while using Facebook is not bad for well-being per se, merely “grazing” its content can be.
Unlike in the first study, where participants were text messaged three times a day to answer questions about their emotional well-being, this time around the researchers had them repeatedly visit the lab and use their personal Facebook accounts in specific ways.
It soon became clear that when the subjects used Facebook actively by sharing photos, updating their status or messaging friends, there was no change in their mood over the course of the day.
But, when they used the site passively by browsing photos or reading conversations without contributing anything themselves, their mood was negatively impacted.
So what conclusion should we draw from all of this? Quite simply; don’t be a lurker. To get the most out of Facebook, use it as a tool to actively engage with friends and family or share parts of your own life.
Also, keep in mind that people only share the highlights of their lives on social media. You won’t often hear about the mundane series of tasks your friends perform on a daily basis, but you will see the photos of their unforgettable weekend away.
So if you compare yourself with others based solely on the things they share on Facebook, you may certainly start to feel a little dissatisfied with your own life.
A study conducted by German researchers from Humboldt University in Berlin and Darmstadt’s Technical University found that “Facebook envy” was most often triggered by vacation photos, but other causes of resentment included family happiness, psychical attractiveness or a perceived lack of attention, such as seeing others get more “likes” or birthday wishes.
People experiencing Facebook envy were also more likely to boast about themselves on Facebook, with men most often emphasizing their accomplishments and women highlighting their good looks and social lives.
This tendency to boast about or embellish details of our own lives when we feel envious of others causes a vicious “envy spiral,” with each person trying to outdo the other.
As with the other two studies, however, the researchers found that these feelings of dissatisfaction and envy were associated with passive following — when users browsed other people’s content, but didn’t actively participate.
The bottom line is that social media isn’t going anywhere, so it’s in our best interest to learn how to use it productively, as a way of enhancing our social life rather than comparing ourselves with others.
Marianne Stenger is a writer and blogger with Open Colleges, one of Australia’s leading online education providers. She has been writing for publications, online resources and blogs in the education industry for over four years, and is passionate about promoting online learning tools and the use of new technology in the classroom. You can find her on Google+ and Twitter, or view her latest articles here.