The Psychology of Facebook Depression: Avoid Social Comparisons & Envy

Social comparisons — which too often result in feelings of envy — are a bad thing in anyone’s life. We’ve all heard about the “grass is always greener” effect because it’s true. Looking at your neighbor’s lawn, house, car, etc. will often result in your feeling less positive about your own lawn, house, car, etc.

Envy is a negative emotion that rarely motivates. Instead, it causes most people to feel worse about themselves and their own life.

So it’s not too surprising when a new set of studies shows that a tool that allows for easy social comparisons — the Facebook social network — can sometimes result in some people feeling more envious, bad about themselves, and with increased depression feelings.

Are you a healthy Facebook user? You are if you simply avoid social comparisons and envy.

We know from previous research that Facebook is a social tool that can help ease loneliness in teens and, contrary to what the journal Pediatrics claims, does not cause depression in teens. Simple research observations about complex human behavior and interactions often result in incorrect conclusions.

The newest study to confirm prior research findings in this area was published (Tandoc et al., 2015) earlier this year (previously covered here). The researchers conducted an online survey of 736 college students (68 percent females) recruited from a large Midwestern university. The average participant said they used Facebook on average of 2 hours a day. The researchers administered a survey that asked about Facebook use, an 8-item envy scale developed for the study, and a validated depression scale often used in research (CES-D).

What the researchers found was that Facebook on its own isn’t the boogeyman. It doesn’t cause people to be more depressed on its own. In fact, that researchers found some evidence that Facebook may even lessen depressive feelings.

However, the more you use Facebook, the more you’re likely to start slipping into the category of encouraging Facebook envy:

The more an individual uses Facebook, the more likely they are to engage in certain behaviors
that lead them to consume others’ personal information. In doing so, they are confronted with more instances when they are prone to comparing themselves with others (Chou & Edge, 2012).

In other words, the longer an individual is on Facebook, the more information they are likely to consume. They will see other users’ news, photos and profiles.

Chou and Edge (2012) also found that the more people consume others’ personal information on Facebook, the more likely they are to become envious, so that a person with a larger network of friends will also be more likely to feel envious than a person with a smaller network.

Even worse, if you use Facebook mostly or exclusively to just keep track of others — what the researchers call “surveillance use” of Facebook — you’re likely to experience greater feelings of envy. Rather than using the social network to share details of their own life through photos and updates, these folks are using Facebook as a spy device.

And as people become Facebook envious, it’s not surprising that their negative feelings increase, leading to depressive symptoms. “Controlling for age and gender, using Facebook for surveillance leads to Facebook envy which leads to depression,” noted the researchers.

Another study published last year (Steers et al., 2014) also confirms these findings. In two separate investigations, the researchers in that study found that social comparisons on Facebook lead to envy, which again, in some people, leads to greater depressive feelings.

The Bottom Line on Facebook Depression

Facebook does not make people more depressed.

Instead, what the research shows is that Facebook — when used as a surveillance device — leads to a greater risk of feelings of envy. And the more those feelings of envy increase, the more likely it is for a person to start feeling depressed.

The key to stopping these feelings is to not use Facebook primarily as a surveillance method to spy on your family and friends’ lives. Instead, use it as a social network where you share your own information, photos and updates, as well as consume others’ updates and shares.

Healthy use of Facebook will protect you against the possibility of feeling more depressed after using it. It’s a simple thing you can try for yourself — especially if you feel more envious after checking Facebook.

 

References

Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Patrick Ferrucci, Margaret Duffy. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 4, 139-146.

Mai-Ly N. Steers, Robert E. Wickham, and Linda K. Acitelli. (2014). Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 701-731.