Woven Together Differently

Adventures in social media enlightenment

Does Facebook increase self-esteem or make us more depressed?

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Image by Phil Shirley. Used under a CC 2.0 license.

Image by Phil Shirley. Used under a CC 2.0 license.

A few of my Facebook friends are taking part in the #100HappyDays challenge, which involves sharing a picture of something that makes you happy, every day for 100 days. It got me wondering about whether such “challenges” actually work. It also got me wondering about the role that Facebook plays in our emotional states. Does it have a positive impact on our emotions or does it create and reinforce negative feelings?

Based on my own experience, I’d say both. Sometimes I leave Facebook feeling frustrated. Not only do I feel as though I’ve just wasted the last 15 minutes, but it also feels like a bit of a challenge sometimes to wade through all the ads, posts from Pages I’ve liked, buzzfeed lists and the latest ‘Which X are you?’ quiz. However, in amongst all the clutter, I might come across a cute picture of my nieces and nephews or I’ll see a post from a friend about something positive that’s happened to them recently. I hit the ‘like’ button and smile. It also feels nice to be able to share photos and positive experiences of my own with my family and friends.

But what does the research say on the matter? Well, it depends which study you look at.

Two studies conducted in Germany looked at the role of envy on Facebook. In the case of the first study, a survey conducted at a German university found that although most respondents did not associate envy with their own personal experience of Facebook (instead citing emotions such as joy, satisfaction, boredom and anger), when asked to describe why “others” might feel frustrated or exhausted after using Facebook, envy was listed as the most important factor. Respondents were then asked to describe their most recent experience of envy, where it occurred and what triggered it. Whilst the majority of envy experiences still occurred offline, over 20% occurred on Facebook and the top triggers for these incidents were ‘travel and leisure’, ‘social interactions’ and ‘happiness’. So, flicking through pictures from an old school friend’s recent Caribbean cruise might stir up feelings of jealousy. Interestingly, as the author’s point out – posting holiday pictures is considered a socially acceptable form of bragging on Facebook.

The second study looked at the relationship between envy, passive following on Facebook – browsing the Newsfeed, clicking through to stories, and examining friends’ profiles; as opposed to actively posting and updating ones Facebook profile – and life satisfaction. Although previous research has shown a link between consuming social information on Facebook and feelings of overload, isolation and depression, this study hypothesises that it is envy which mediates this link. Via a complex process that I won’t go into (and which I’m not sure I fully understood), the researchers were able to prove their hypothesis.

The author’s argue that since envy is a painful emotion, users’ will attempt to deal with the envy elicited by Facebook in a number of possible ways. One results is that users’ engage in “ever greater self-promotion and impression management”, which leads to a “self-promotion – envy-spiral”.

However, other studies have found that social sharing can have positive effects. For instance, a study into the effect of social sharing on the well-being of emotionally unstable individuals found that:

Emotional unstable individuals are more likely to post self-relevant information and write about their emotions when doing so. Further, such emotional writing, paired with the potential to receive social support – as on social networking sites – helps them repair well-being after negative experiences.

A second study, entitled ‘Looking back at Facebook content and the positive impact upon wellbeing’, explores the potential of Facebook as a means of reminiscing and consequently as a self soothing tool, in particular by those experiencing mental health problems. In response to a survey, Facebook users reported that the Facebook activities most likely to help improve their mood include looking back at wall posts, looking back at photos posted on their wall and looking back at photos they posted. The survey compared the results for those who did not report previous experience of mental health issues and those who did and found that looking back at wall posts and photos had more of a self soothing effect on those who had previously experienced mental health problems.

As the envy study points out, instances of envy relate to posts by other people. Whereas the two positive studies focused on posts that were actively made by the individual or were shared by others with the individual (and therefore, probably less likely to be self-promotional or bragging). But the positive and negative impacts of Facebook appear to be different sides of the same coin. You post a picture on Facebook of something that made you happy that day. Looking through your Facebook pictures also allows you to reminisce on other happy occasions. Meanwhile, one of your Facebook followers sees your happy picture and is filled with jealousy.

So, based on these studies (which I realise is a limited sample – I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more studies on this issue), if you want to feel positive after using Facebook, look back at all the nice photos you’ve posted and post about yourself, but avoid your News Feed and definitely don’t give in to the temptation to look at other people’s profiles. Also, maybe don’t think about the fact that your happy posts could be filling someone else with rage and envy.

However, if we all used Facebook in this way it would start to look less like social media and more like ‘me’ media. As the author’s of the envy study point out, people tend to “over-emphasise their achievements” on Facebook. Perhaps then, the answer to achieving a sense of Facebook well-being is to take those picture perfect snaps and updates with a pinch of salt. After all, life is a lot more complicated – and rightfully, wonderfully so – than 100 happy photos could ever portray.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

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