Better Living With Technology

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Everybody’s Life Is Better Than Mine…on Facebook

Social comparison on social networking sites is likely to lead to unhappiness.

Are you jealous reading about others' amazing lives on Facebook?

 

Media outlets have been aflurry with the publicizing of a new study that found that Facebook use is associated with lower levels of well-being over time. [1] This is not the first study to show that Facebook use has a negative impact on one’s mood and sense of self, however. Although a lot of early research highlighted the use of Facebook for expanding one’s social networks and growing social capital, considerable research has also identified many downsides from examining the content of our friends’ Facebook presentations.

Perhaps the primary reason we feel sad, jealous, or dissatisfied after using Facebook is because we are constantly making social comparisons based on incomplete or inaccurate information. One study found that the more time users spend on Facebook each week, the more likely they are to think that others were happier and having better lives than they themselves [2]. Another study found that looking at social networking profiles of attractive people (compared to unattractive people) led to greater body dissatisfaction and a more negative body image. Men who viewed profiles of successful men were less satisfied with their current career status than men who viewed profiles of less successful men [3]. Facebook can also evoke relational jealousy as users compare themselves to their perceived romantic competition on Facebook [4, 5].

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“I want to look like a loser on Facebook!” said no one ever.

I use the term “presentations” to describe Facebook content because they are just that. “Profile” sounds too official, too real, too FBI. What active Facebook users really do on the site is make conscious decisions about what they post and share in order to achieve certain social goals. Researchers call this selective self-presentation. For many, those goals are to make themselves look as good as possible: attractive, popular, successful, enviable. Thus, the content of Facebook profiles is more of a compilation of our greatest hits than an honest track listing.

The problem is that humans have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others to make judgments about ourselves. We make upward social comparisons, where we compare ourselves to people we consider better off than we are, and downward social comparisons, where we compare ourselves to those who are worse off.

We also have a terrible habit of believing that we apply the right filters to our Facebook use when we don’t. If you ask a Facebook user directly, “Do you believe that everything you see on someone’s page is accurate?” he or she will inevitably say no. Most users are aware that people’s presentations on Facebook are selectively censored and inflated. When users actually view and process that content, though, they forget that part of the equation and tend to react more viscerally and emotionally to content instead of rationally. Thus, we are almost always making upward social comparisons that make us feel badly about ourselves.

For example, let’s say a friend posts a picture of her meal from a work lunch at a very fancy restaurant with the comment, “Paté for lunch at Café Glamorous. Work is sooo hard :) #roughlife.” You may know she hates everything about her job—and even that she hates paté—but that doesn’t mean you don’t experience jealousy. You compare the fact that she gets to lunch at a fancy restaurant to your lukewarm Lean Cuisine at your cubicle, rather than comparing the fact that she is miserable in her job whereas you actually kind of enjoy yours. That’s because she is choosing to selectively self-present only the Café Glamorous moments in her life on Facebook rather than posting about her 14 hour work days, her horrible boss, her petty co-workers, and her pittance of a salary. And, rather than weighing all your other knowledge about her work situation and feeling sorry for her, you are choosing to drool over the paté and be envious.

What to do

So how can you combat this tendency to self-compare? First, it never hurts to spend less time on Facebook in general. Simply removing the app from your phone is a good first step.

Second, if you know that specific people tend to make you feel down, remove their updates from your newsfeed and avoid visiting their pages. If you don’t have a reason to stay connected to them, consider the liberating experience of unfriending them entirely.

Third, don’t go on Facebook when you’re in a bad mood; reach out to friends through other channels rather than setting yourself up for social comparison time. Among all of your connections, you are guaranteed to find something that will make you feel worse, whether it’s a picture of your ex with a hot new thang or your sibling’s perfect relationship or your friend’s complete inability to ever take a picture that isn’t flawless.

Finally, give yourself a reality check whenever you feel yourself getting jealous looking at a friend’s page. Don’t forget that you have plenty of good things in your life as well. And if you can’t think of one, try getting off of Facebook and finding one.

References

[1] Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., et al. (2013) Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS ONE, 8(8):e69841.

[2] Chou, H.-T. G., & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. CyberPsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 15, 117-121.

[3] Haferkamp, N., & Krämer, N. C. (2011). Social comparison 2.0: Examining the effects of online profiles on social-networking sites. CyberPsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 14, 309-314.

[4] Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais, S. (in press). “Creeping” or just information seeking? Gender differences in partner monitoring in response to jealousy on Facebook. Personal Relationships.

[5] Utz, S., & Beukeboom, C. J. (2011). The role of social network sites in romantic relationships: Effects on jealousy and relationship happiness. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 16, 511-527.                         

Jesse Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab.

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