Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Is Facebook Distorting Your View of the World?

Heavy use of social networks can leave you irritated and sad.

One night last week while lying in bed browsing Facebook on my phone, I realized a couple of things. First, I was bored. I felt that subtle sense of agitation we feel when we’re stimulated but not stimulated enough. It reminded me of how I feel when I’m annoyed by the sound of distant music. It’s loud enough that I know it’s playing, but soft enough that I can’t really make out anything beyond the pumping of the bass. For me, Facebook was occupying the same uncomfortable middle ground—between the peace that comes with disengagement and the intrigue attached to total engagement.

Second, I realized there were things I’d rather be doing (in particular, reading a book I’m currently in love with), and that I was browsing Facebook not out of a preference for that activity but because of a passive compulsion.

Concluding that Facebook was actually detracting from my sense of well-being at the end of a stressful day, I deleted the app from my phone.

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The negative aspects of Facebook use have gotten a lot of attention lately. A major theme has been the idea that witnessing the perfect-seeming lives of others actually makes us sad. Writing for Slate, Libby Copeland describes the effects of observing the artificially perfect lives of our friends through their happy photos and “chipper” status updates. The more balanced reality of our own lives may feel crummy in comparison (Copeland, 2011).

A recent BBC post, however, details several studies that suggest that the perception of our friends as more popular and happier than us may actually be accurate. The author labels this phenomenon the “friendship paradox”:

Not only will your friends have more friends than you do, they probably have more sexual partners, too. Although highly counterintuitive, there is a straightforward mathematical reason for this. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. People have more friends than you do simply because the average is skewed (Mullins, 2014).

Even if our friends tend to be more like us than different, the author points out, we’re all likely to have someone in our feed who is richer or happier than we are.

But neither the façade of perfection nor the superior popularity or wealth of my friends is what really bothers me. I’m a therapist and that tempers these illusions for me; I have a tangible sense of the complexity of peoples’ lives and the distance between their social masks and personal truths.

What bothers me is something more visceral than cognitive. It’s more about the act of browsing Facebook than the content I encounter.

A 2013 New Yorker article speaks to my experience. Recognizing that there’s been a fair amount of contradictory research regarding Facebook (some researchers contend that it makes us happier, and some conclude it makes us sadder), Maria Konnikova referenced a study that parses out types of Facebook use. In this study, University of Missouri researchers tracked participants’ happiness through facial electromyography (a measure of facial expression). “When the subjects were actively engaged with Facebook,” Konnikova wrote, “their physiological response measured a significant uptick in happiness. When they were passively browsing, however, the positive effect disappeared.”

“Demands on our attention lead us to use Facebook more passively than actively,” Konnikova continued, “and passive experiences, no matter the medium, translate to feelings of disconnection and boredom.” (Konnikova, 2013)

For me, it was the passivity of the experience that irritated me, both in the sense that the activity was passive and understimulating, and that the choice to browse Facebook was passive and not in line with my more authentic preference for my book.

In addition to this unsettling passivity, I think the addictiveness of Facebook (or really any internet use) is disturbing. More easily than cigarette smoking, drinking, or drug use, Facebook addiction creeps into our lives without any obvious harm. But like any compulsion, it takes up too much space and energy, and detracts from other preferable pursuits. A Facebook addiction can leave us with a sense of irritation when we’re not using it (or even sometimes when we are).

To measure Facebook addiction, in 2012 Norwegian researchers developed a scale composed of Likert ratings based on the following 6 criteria:

You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planning how to use it.

You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.

You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems.

You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success.

You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook.

You use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies. (Paddock, 2012)

Although many would debate the strength of the potential danger of this addiction, few would argue that Facebook users frequently display addictive qualities. This idea bothers me more than the problem of passive attention (although the passive attention problem may have been what compelled me to change). I don’t like the compulsion to check it when I’m offline. And, when I do log on, I’ve realized, the highs, or even the reprieve from the agitation, is pretty disappointing.

 

References

Copeland, L. (2011) The anti-social network. Slate, January 26. Accessed at http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/01/the_antisocial_network.html

Konnikova, M. (2013) How Facebook makes us unhappy. The New Yorker, September 10. Accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/09/the-real-reason-facebook-makes-us-unhappy.html

Mullins, J. (2014). Can Facebook make you sad? BBC, February 6. Accessed at http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140206-is-facebook-bad-for-you

Paddock. C. (2012). Facebook addiction- New psychological scale. Medical News today, May 11. Accessed at http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/245251.php

 

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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