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The Hidden Danger of Social Networks

Do you suffer from profile envy?

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Media outlets have been aflurry with news 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 can have a negative impact on one’s mood and sense of self, though. While much early research highlighted the use of Facebook for expanding one’s social networks and growing social capital, considerable research has also identified downsides, particularly from examining the content of our friends’ Facebook presentations.

Perhaps the primary reason we feel sad, jealous, or dissatisfied after using Facebook is that 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 (as 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 the site [4, 5].

“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 will 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 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, in which we compare ourselves to people we consider better off than we are, and downward social comparisons, in which we compare ourselves to those who appear worse off.

We also have a terrible habit of believing that we apply the right filters to our Facebook use when we really 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 even 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. In that way, we are almost always making upward social comparisons that make us feel badly about ourselves.

Let’s say a friend posts a picture of her meal from a work lunch at a 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 a flash of jealousy. You compare the fact that she gets to have lunch at a fancy restaurant while you consume Lean Cuisine in your cubicle, rather than comparing the reality that she is miserable in her job while you actually kind of enjoy yours. That’s because she is selectively self-presenting only the Café Glamorous moments in her life on Facebook rather than bemoaning her 14-hour work days, her miserable boss, her petty co-workers, and her pittance of a salary. Rather than weighing all that you know about her work situation and feeling sorry for her, you can't resist drooling over the paté and feeling envious.

What to Do

How can you combat this tendency to self-compare? First, it never hurts to spend less time on Facebook in general.

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

Third, don’t go on Facebook when you’re in a bad mood. In those moments, reach out to friends through other channels rather than setting yourself up for social-network comparison time. Among all of your varied online connections, you are guaranteed to find something that will make you feel worse, whether it’s a picture of your ex with a hot date, or updates on your sibling’s perfect relationship, or your high-school friend’s 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, get offline and go find one.


[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.

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