How Facebook can undermine mental health
Lesli Boldt describes herself as a confident person, so she was surprised when she began to second-guess the strengths of her business. Her communications firm was doing well, so she wondered why she had feelings of insecurity.
At the time, Boldt was sitting in a hospital waiting room, browsing Facebook. “I was reading these glowing reviews from people about what their clients are doing or how great the new website they launched is,” she said in an interview. “And it was making me feel down and making me feel like my life wasn’t as good and that my business wasn’t as good as some of these other people’s.”
Boldt told the Georgia Straight that she suspected it wasn’t her business that was the problem, but Facebook. She decided it was time for a break. “I didn’t look at Facebook for probably four or five days,” she said. “And I felt better.”
There’s a growing body of research that suggests Boldt is on to something.
Academic studies from around the world have found that active participation on Facebook—uploading photographs or chatting with people, for example—can have a positive impact on one’s mood. But a less studied phenomenon—passive participation on Facebook, like viewing friends’ posts without interacting—can negatively affect a person’s mental well-being.
In February 2013, Hanna Krasnova, an assistant professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland, published the results of a research project exploring passive Facebook activity. Her team concluded that the information people access via Facebook produces a “basis for social comparison and envy on an unprecedented scale”.
On the phone from Switzerland, Krasnova told the Straight that they determined this is because Facebook creates conditions for a unique set of social comparisons.
The first, she explained, is that Facebook gives users access to information that they never had before. The second is that the majority of that information is positive—people’s vacation photos, for example. The third condition, Krasnova continued, is that information is largely coming from people who are similar to the users consuming it, which amplifies tendencies for comparisons.
“It creates this background or foundation for social comparison to develop and for envy to develop,” Krasnova said. “Of course, this is not reality. It is a very one-sided view. Because reality is multifaceted and we have good moments and bad moments. But when people look at those images, they get the impression that everybody is only having fun, laughing, and having babies.”
Krasnova’s paper notes that from Facebook’s perspective, this may present challenges. “Our findings signal that users frequently perceive Facebook as a stressful environment, which may, in the long run, endanger platform sustainability,” it states.
An August 2013 study by psychologist Ethan Kross and other researchers at the University of Michigan arrived at similar conclusions: that time spent on Facebook negatively influences both short- and long-term components of a participant’s mental health.
“The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them,” states Kross’s research paper. “The more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time.”
Janni Aragon, acting director of technology-integrated learning at the University of Victoria, suggested that one of the reasons social comparisons on Facebook aren’t always healthy is because people are putting their whole, unfiltered life up against versions of their friends’ lives that are often crafted through a highly selective process.
“We only share what we want to, which might not actually be the truth,” she explained over the phone. “There is research out there that says our Facebook lives are more glamorous than our real lives.”
In a telephone interview, Clint Burnham, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s department of English, emphasized that there is a very long history of anxieties emerging in response to new technologies.
“For example, the novel,” Burnham said. “In the 18th and 19th century, it was this weird new thing—like with kids and video games today—and people were worried that it was going to make their children immoral.
“Or 200 years ago, girlfriends and boyfriends were passing letters back and forth, hiding them, and giving them to servants,” he continued. “In the same way, today kids are texting and sexting and so on.”
Burnham maintained that Facebook is simply the latest development in a long narrative. “People are just worried about their kids doing stuff that they can’t control,” he said.
Boldt had good things to say about Facebook, too. She simply suggested moderation.
“When people post photos of their fabulous vacations, they’re not posting photos of their kids melting down; they’re posting these idyllic, happy videos of their kids doing something adorable,” she emphasized. “So you end up comparing yourself to the best moments of people’s lives and not their whole lives.”
Boldt admitted she’s more likely to post a positive message than complain about a bad day, like everybody else. But she added that she is careful about not overdoing it, for the sake of her friends. And for her own mental health, she keeps in mind that what she sees on Facebook isn’t exactly real.
“Take what you see on social media with a grain of salt,” she suggested. “And do yourself a favour: put down the app, go for a walk, or spend time with friends. Just take a little break from it.”