In a well thought-out study designed to tease out some of the differences in how people actually use the social networking service Facebook, Tandoc et al. (2015) have put some interesting data behind the question that’s been asked at least a half-dozen times already: Does Facebook cause depression?
Their findings? No, Facebook doesn’t cause depression any more than using the Internet causes depression (that was actually a thing at one point in the past too!).
In fact, like most things in psychological research, they found the relationship between depression and Facebook use is a complex one, mediated by a number of factors. Two of those factors are how exactly you use Facebook, and whether you feel envious of others.
Let’s take a closer look at the study…
The study was designed around an online survey of Facebook users at a midwestern college in the U.S., so its findings don’t necessarily apply to older adults. Out of the 736 students surveyed, 68 percent of them were women and 78 percent identified themselves as Caucasian.
To determine Facebook usage, they asked participants how often they used Facebook each day.1 They found the average daily usage of Facebook in the group was about 2 hours per day.
To differentiate Facebook lurkers from active users, the researchers “asked participants to rate in a 5-point scale, from very frequently (5) to never (1), how often they: “write a status update; post your photos; comment on a friend’s post; read the ‘newsfeed;’ read a friend’s status update; view a friend’s photo; and browse a friend’s timeline.”” They refer to lurkers in the study as those who are using Facebook as a method of surveillance.
Then the researchers created their own envy questionnaire based upon others’ work in the area of operationalizing this emotion. Usually this is not a good research methodology — to create your own survey instrument on-the-fly without actually running a study on just that psychological instrument to understand and describe its psychometric properties and significant factors. I always ding research that does this.
Finally, the researchers used a standard research measure for depression, the CES-D, which is a self-administered screening test for symptoms of depression.
The researchers found, most significantly, that use of Facebook overall had no relationship to depression amongst their college student population.
But using their own envy questionnaire, the researchers also discovered a connection between envy, depression and Facebook use:
What [the data] means is that surveillance use of Facebook can lessen depression when it does not trigger feelings of envy.
However, surveillance use of Facebook can lead to depression when it triggers Facebook envy.
So even just lurking on Facebook doesn’t cause depression, according to the researchers. Instead the relationship is more complex.
Lurking on Facebook has to combine with feelings of actual envy toward others before the researchers found a statistically significant relationship with depressive feelings (whether these feelings were clinically significant — actually impacting the subject’s life negatively — the researchers did not measure and could not tell).
This is consistent with the existing research on envy and jealousy. Studies (such as Smith & Kim, 2007 and Salovey & Rodin, 1984) demonstrate a relationship between feelings of jealousy or envy and depression. It’s therefore not surprising to see this relationship play out online on social networking services.
The researchers’ additional findings are:
[…] that heavy Facebook users have higher levels of Facebook envy than light users. 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.
Can we generalize this finding to all Facebook users? Not yet. The study needs to be replicated, especially among a population of non-college-aged adults. Additionally, it would be helpful if the researchers published a study about the envy questionnaire they developed for this study. Otherwise, we can’t be certain it actually measured what they thought it was intended to measure.
Also, tucked away in the data is this important fact: “[Our] final mediation model [accounted] for only about 30% of the variance in depression. Other factors, such as personality types and offline situations, also contribute to depression among college students.” So although there’s a relationship there, it’s not a direct one — not everyone who is envious on Facebook is going to experience depressive feelings.
But the preliminary take-away? If you find yourself feeling down after checking in on Facebook, that may be a sign that you fall into the category of those who get envious of others on Facebook. Which could lead to greater depressive feelings… Perhaps more so than you realize.
Salovey, P. & Rodin, J. (1984). Some antecedents and consequences of social-comparison jealousy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 780-792.
Smith, RH & Kim, SH. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 46–64.
Tandoc, E.C., Ferrucci, P. & Duffy, M. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing?. Computers in Human Behavior, 43, 139-146.
- I’ve never liked this kind of question, because like most social networks, Facebook is used on-the-fly throughout the day at many different times. A significant number of users — often a majority — of social networks don’t touch them just once or twice a day — they use them dozens of times a day. Asking a person to add up all these interactions to get to a total sum number per day seems a bit inaccurate. [↩]