Is Facebook Making You Depressed?

New research suggests who’s at risk for depression from too much Facebook use

Posted Oct 14, 2017

That experience of “FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, is one that psychologists identified several years ago as a potent risk of Facebook use. You’re alone on a Saturday night, decide to check in to see what your Facebook friends are doing, and see that they’re at a party and you’re not. Longing to be out and about, you start to wonder why no one invited you, even though you thought you were popular with that segment of your crowd. Is there something these people actually don’t like about you? How many other social occasions have you missed out on because your supposed friends didn’t want you around? You find yourself becoming preoccupied and can almost see your self-esteem slipping further and further downhill as you continue to seek reasons for the snubbing.

The feeling of being left out was always a potential contributor to feelings of depression and low self-esteem from time immemorial but only with social media has it now become possible to quantify the number of times you’re left off the invite list. With such risks in mind, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning that Facebook could trigger depression in children and adolescents, populations that are particularly sensitive to social rejection. The legitimacy of this claim, according to Hong Kong Shue Yan University’s Tak Sang Chow and Hau Yin Wan (2017), can be questioned. “Facebook Depression” may not exist at all, they believe, or the relationship may even go in the opposite direction in which more Facebook usage is related to higher, not lower, life satisfaction. 

As the authors point out, it seems quite likely that the Facebook-depression relationship would be a complicated one. Adding to the mixed nature of the literature's findings is the possibility that personality might also play a critical role. Based on your personality, you may interpret the posts of your friends in a way that differs from the way in which someone else thinks about them. Rather than feeling insulted or rejected when you see that party posting, you may be happy that your friends are having a good time, even though you’re not there to share that particular event with them. If you’re not as secure about how much you’re liked by others, you’ll regard that posting in a less favorable light and see it as a clear-cut case of ostracism.

The one personality trait that the Hong Kong authors believe would play a key role is neuroticism, or the chronic tendency to worry excessively, feel anxious, and experience a pervasive sense of insecurity. A number of prior studies investigated neuroticism’s role in causing Facebook users high in this trait to try to present themselves in an unusually favorable light, including portrayals of their physical selves. The highly neurotic are also more likely to follow the Facebook feeds of others rather than to post their own status. Two other Facebook-related psychological qualities are envy and social comparison, both relevant to the negative experiences people can have on Facebook. In addition to neuroticism, Chow and Wan sought to investigate the effect of these two psychological qualities on the Facebook-depression relationship.

The online sample of participants recruited from around the world consisted of 282 adults, ranging from ages 18 to 73 (average age of 33), two-thirds male, and representing a mix of race/ethnicities (51% Caucasian). They completed standard measures of personality traits and depression. Asked to estimate their Facebook use and number of friends, participants also reported on the extent to which they engage in Facebook social comparison and how much they experience envy. To measure Facebook social comparison, participants answered questions such as “I think I often compare myself with others on Facebook when I am reading news feeds or checking out others’ photos” and “I’ve felt pressure from the people I see on Facebook who have perfect appearance.” The envy questionnaire included items such as “It somehow doesn’t seem fair that some people seem to have all the fun.”

This was indeed a set of heavy Facebook users, with a range of reported minutes on the site of from 0 to 600, with a mean of 100 minutes per day. Very few, though, spent more than two hours per day scrolling through the posts and photos of their friends. The sample members reported having a large number of friends, with an average of 316; a large group (about two-thirds) of participants had over 1,000. The largest number of friends reported was 10,001, but some participants had none at all. Their scores on the measures of neuroticism, social comparison, envy, and depression were in the mid-range of each of the scales.

The key question would be whether Facebook use and depression would be positively related. Would those two-hour plus users of this brand of social media be more depressed than the infrequent browsers of the activities of their friends? The answer was, in the words of the authors, a definitive “no;" as they concluded: “At this stage, it is premature for researchers or practitioners to conclude that spending time on Facebook would have detrimental mental health consequences” (p. 280).

That said, however, there is a mental health risk for people high in neuroticism. People who worry excessively, feel chronically insecure, and are generally anxious, do experience a heightened chance of showing depressive symptoms. As this was a one-time only study, the authors rightly noted that it’s possible that the highly neurotic who are already high in depression, become the Facebook-obsessed. The old correlation does not equal causation issue couldn't be settled by this particular investigation.

Even so, from the vantage point of the authors, there’s no reason for society as a whole to feel “moral panic” about Facebook use. What they see as over-reaction to media reports of all online activity (including videogames) comes out of a tendency to err in the direction of false positives. When it’s a foregone conclusion that any online activity is bad, the results of scientific studies become stretched in the direction to fit that set of beliefs. As with videogames, such biased interpretations not only limit scientific inquiry, but fail to take into account the possible mental health benefits that people’s online behavior can promote.

The next time you find yourself experiencing FOMO, the Hong Kong study suggests that you examine why you’re feeling so left out. Take a break, look back on the photos from past social events that you’ve enjoyed with your friends before, and enjoy reflecting on those happy memories.

References

Chow, T. S., & Wan, H. Y. (2017). Is there any ‘Facebook Depression’? Exploring the moderating roles of neuroticism, Facebook social comparison and envy. Personality and Individual Differences, 119277-282. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.07.032