As a therapist who works primarily with people in their 20s and 30s, I often feel like a priest who hears Facebook confessions. Over the past few years, my office has become a place where day after day one twentysomething after another drops onto the couch and groans “According to Facebook, I’m the only person not saving orphans after graduation” or “I feel pretty good about my career until I look on Facebook and see what everybody else is doing” or “Every time somebody changes their relationship status on Facebook, I panic” or “I’m convinced Facebook was invented to make single people feel bad about their lives.”
There’s a great quote by technology commentator Esther Dyson that goes, “The internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway.” Facebook isn’t evil. It’s a medium. It’s another place where we just keep being human.
One thing humans do is compare themselves to each another. Social comparison theory tells us that, when left without obvious cues about our performance, we look to what others are doing to decide whether what we are doing is good enough.
Unfortunately, when we graduate from college, we leave behind the only lives we have ever known, ones divided into semester-sized chunks with measureable goals nestled within. Suddenly, life opens up and the syllabi are gone. As one client put it to me: “Between 20 and 30, there’s this big chunk of time and a whole bunch of stuff needs to happen somehow. How am I supposed to know if I’m on track?” Or as another said, “I don’t know how to get an A in my 20s.”
Facebook seems to offer up an easy way to grade yourself relative to others, and many twentysomethings use it precisely this way. On average users spend more time looking at others’ pages than adding content to their own. And research tells us that Facebook’s most frequent visitors—usually females who post and share photos and receive status updates—use the site for social surveillance. Facebook can be a place where “catching up” and “keeping up” are less about connecting and more about comparing.
The problem with this goes back to another Facebook confession I hear a lot. Clients come to my office and whisper about the hours they spend selecting pictures and crafting updates, going through them again and again, trying to see their Facebook pages as others will. One of my clients laughs at what he calls his “self-advertisement.”
Strangely, when clients make this particular confession, they feel like the only ones who are doing this. This makes every social comparison on Facebook feel like what is called an upward social comparison, one where our nights sitting on the couch eating a Lean Cuisine—and stalking and posing on Facebook—seem low compared the high life everyone else seems to somehow truly be living. Decades of research on body image tells us that comparing our bodies to Cosmo covers makes us feel bad about ourselves. So it goes for upward social comparisons on Facebook.
Facebook is an ideal place to network which, for twentysomethings, is crucial because distant contacts are where new jobs and dates are going to come from, and It’s also great place to claim what is going well in your life and to promote yourself and your projects. (That’s what I use it for!)
But the next time you’re tempted to use Facebook to make social comparisons, take a deep breath, resist the urge, and do something else. Your real life can’t compare to the airbrushed lives you see on Facebook any more than your real body can compare to the photoshopped images in magazines.
You can’t take Facebook at face value.