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Singing the Facebook Blues?

Can spending too much time on Facebook make you depressed?

Can spending too much time on Facebook make you depressed?   Early research studies have tentatively linked time spent on social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace with mental health symptoms though later research has yielded more mixed results.   While some studies showed evidence of increased depression, other studies have found that time on Facebook can have positive benefits as well.  Despite the lack of clear answers, “Facebook Depression” has become a common theme in media articles highlighting the dangers of being online.  

To settle whether social networking can cause mental health problems, Joanne Davila and her fellow researchers at Stony Brook University have focused on the quality of online interactions rather than just measuring amount of time online.   In a 2012 study they conducted,  “Facebook depression” was largely linked to poor quality interactions that can reinforce mental health issues that already exist in some Facebook users.  

Some of the problems that can lead to depression involve self-comparison with Facebook friends who seem more attractive, have more friends, and are generally more successful.    This kind of self-comparison often leads to negative self-judgments, especially if the Facebook friend in question reports on events in their lives that make the user feel worse off by comparison.   

Getting a great new job or being in a new relationship is always wonderful news though people who are unemployed or who feel socially inadequate might become more depressed as a result.   On the other hand, people seeking sympathy on Facebook over negative life events can make users feel better about their own lives as well.   For any online interaction, social comparison is important in judging how  Facebook users stand in their own lives. 

According to Leon Festinger, people have a strong need to evaluate their own place in the world by comparing themselves to other people.  This reduces any uncertainty they might feel and helps them to define their own self-image.  Festinger proposed that people can make upward and downward self-comparisons based on whether they compare themselves to people who are better off or worse off than they are.    Upward comparisons can lower self-esteem by making people feel more inadequate while downward comparisons can make people feel better about themselves and their lives.

Though social comparisons have typically focused on people we interact with on a face-to-face basis, the rise of social networking has created an online equivalent that may be just as potent.   While there is an enormous amount of research looking at how negative social comparisons affect self-esteem, actual studies examining how it relates to social networks such as Facebook are relatively scarce.   In recent years however, studies have shown that Facebook users tend to view their Facebook friends as being happier and “having better lives”.   Even looking at pictures of same-sex Facebook friends seen as more attractive can lead to lower self-esteem.

One particular factor that may explain the link between negative self-comparison and depression is the concept of rumination.   While not quite the same thing as worrying, rumination deals with obsessively focusing on mental distress.  People who ruminate often dwell on past failures and inadequacies and have difficulty seeing potential solutions to problems that seem unsolvable.  Ruminating on how much better off people on Facebook are compared to how you see your own life can lead to increased depression.   Still, research linking Facebook use to rumination has been limited up to now.  

A recent research study by Joanna Davila and her fellow researchers examined social comparison and rumination in Facebook user to see how they were linked to depression.   Using a sample of 268 university students (62% female) completing online questionnaires, they  found that rumination was a critical factor linking negative self-comparison and depression  They also found that rumination can persist over time and lead to worsenin depression.   Based on the study data, Davila et al argue that social networking sites such as Facebook provide new opportunities for people to compare themselves with others and can be potentially harmful, especially  if they have pre-existing problems with poor self-esteem or depression.  

But why would this be the case?   Davila and her co-authors suggest that Facebook users are more likely to share positive details about themselves than they would in “real life” and that people who spend a lot of time online are more likely to see others as having “better lives” than they do.   People prone to ruminating about the distress in their lives spend more time dwelling on their relative inadequacy.   Comparing themselves to the happy lives that others on Facebook seem to have is going to lead to increased depression. 

As for how ruminating leads to emotional distress, the late Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and her colleagues speculated that rumination led to depression due to:

  • Reduced interpersonal problem solving
  • Less willingness to engage in pleasant activities to lift mood
  • More pessimism about positive events in the future

As a result, people who passively ruminate about their inadequacy are less likely to do anything constructive to lift themselves out of depression.  If anything, they may spend more time online passively comparing themselves to others or else try to find people who share their pessimistic view of the world.    This seeking out of people who share a distorted view of reality can be especially destructive given the existence of suicide advocacy sites or sites promoting various types of political or social extremism. 

Considering the mental health implications of Facebook use for people who are especially vulnerable,  researchers need to take a closer look at how social networking sites can play a role in depression.   Although media reports have tended to play up the “dangers” of Facebook use, it is important to develop a more even perspective about Facebook’s effect on users.    Facebook has already taken the lead with new initiatives to identify users who are potentially suicidal although their effectiveness is still being studied. 

While rumination is only one factor that can play a role in the complex relationship between self-esteem and depression, it can be especially important for people with poor self-esteem and a tendency towards pessimism.    Certainly, comparing ourselves to others can help shape our own sense of identity and our general place in the world.   

Ultimately, preventing ourselves from sinking  into “Facebook depression” means avoiding negative ruminations that can reinforce feelings of poor self-esteem.     As social media sites like Facebook become more important in our lives, we need to recognize how vulnerable we can be to despair because other people’s lives seem so much better than ours.   Keeping a sense of balance can be just as important online as it is in real life.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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