Facebook’s meteoric rise in popularity suggests that it offers us something we’ve always wanted. It allows us to simultaneously keep in touch with long-lost cousin Annabelle in Baton Rouge, best friend Percival from the first grade at St. Mary’s School, as well as 491 other assorted friends, relatives, and acquaintances—all at once, instantaneously, no trips to the post office necessary. With the click of a button we can see what Percival’s cute little daughter had for breakfast this morning, or what Annabelle’s pet dog wore to last year’s Halloween party.
But like all benefits in life, Facebook comes with its psychological costs—many of them invisible. Indeed, a recent study found that heavy Facebook users experience decreases in subjective well-being over time (Kross et al., 2013). Below we review some research suggesting 7 ways that Facebook may be hurting you.
It can make you feel like your life isn’t as cool as everyone else’s. Social psychologist Leon Festinger observed that people are naturally inclined to engage in social comparison. To answer a question like “Am I doing better or worse than average?” you need to check out other people like you. Facebook is a quick, effortless way to engage in social comparison, but with even one glance through your News Feed you might see pictures of your friends enjoying a mouth-watering dinner at Chez Panisse, or perhaps winning the Professor of the Year award at Yale University. Indeed, a study by Chou and Edge (2012) found that chronic Facebook users tend to think that other people lead happier lives than their own, leading them to feel that life is less fair.
It can lead you to envy your friends’ successes. Did cousin Annabelle announce a nice new promotion last month, a new car last week, and send a photo from her cruise vacation to Aruba this morning? Not only can Facebook make you feel like you aren’t sharing in your friends’ happiness, but it can also make you feel envious of their happy lives. Buxmann and Krasnova (2013) have found that seeing others’ highlights on your News Feed can make you envious of friends’ travels, successes, and appearances. Additional findings suggest that the negative psychological impact of passively following others on Facebook is driven by the feelings of envy that stem from passively skimming your News Feed.
It can lead to a sense of false consensus. Sit next to a friend while you each search for the same thing on Google. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble (2012), can promise you won’t see the same search results. Not only have your Internet searches grown more personalized, so have social networking sites. Facebook’s sorting function places posts higher in your News Feed if they’re from like-minded friends—which may distort your view of the world (Constine, 2012). This can lead you to believe that your favorite political candidate is a shoe-in for the upcoming election, even though many of your friends are saying otherwise…you just won’t hear them.
It can keep you in touch with people you’d really rather forget. Want to know what your ex is up to? You can…and that might not be a good thing.Facebook stalking has made it harder to let go of past relationships. Does she seem as miserable as I am? Is that ambiguous post directed at me? Has she started dating that guy from trivia night? These questions might better remain unanswered; indeed, Marshall (2012) found that Facebook users who reported visiting their former partner’s page experienced disrupted post-breakup emotional recovery and higher levels of distress. Even if you still run into your ex in daily life, the effects of online surveillance were significantly worse than those of offline contact.
It can make you jealous of your current partner. Facebook stalking doesn’t only apply to your ex. Who is this Stacy LaRue, and why is she constantly “liking” my husband’s Facebook posts? Krafsky and Krafsky, authors of Facebook and Your Marriage (2010), address many common concerns in relationships that stem from Facebook use. “Checking up on” your partner’s page can often lead to jealousy and even unwarranted suspicion, particularly if your husband’s exes frequently come into the picture. Krafsky and Krafsky recommend talking with your partner about behaviors that you both consider safe and trustworthy on Facebook, and setting boundaries where you don’t feel comfortable.
It can reveal information you might not want to share with potential employers. Do you really want a potential employer to know about how drunk you got at last week’s kegger…or the interesting wild night that followed with the girl in the blue bikini? Peluchette and Karl (2010) found that 40% of users mention alcohol use on their Facebook page, and 20% mention sexual activities. We often think these posts are safe from prying eyes, but that might not be the case. While 89% of jobseekers use social networking sites, 37% of potential employers do, as well—and are actively looking into their potential hires (Smith, 2013). If you’re on the job market, make sure to check your privacy settings and restrict any risqué content to “Friends Only”, if you don’t wish to delete it entirely.
It can become addictive. Think society’s most common addictive substances are coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol? Think again. The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) includes a new diagnosis that has stirred controversy: a series of items gauging Internet Addiction. Since then, Facebook addiction has gathered attention from both popular media and empirical journals, leading to the creation of a Facebook addiction scale (Paddock, 2012; see below for items). To explore the seriousness of this addiction, Hofmann and colleagues (2012) randomly texted participants over the course of a week to ask what they most desired at that particular moment. They found that among their participants, social media use was craved even more than tobacco and alcohol.
Of course, the news isn’t all that bad. Some research finds Facebook may decrease loneliness when used to keep up to date—and keep in touch with—others. Fenne Deters and Matthias Mehl (2012) randomly assigned participants to post more status updates than they typically did per week, and found that this led to increased feelings of social connectedness, and lower levels of loneliness. In the end, Facebook is probably a lot like other technological advances, such as the automobile – whether or not it hurts you or cousin Annabelle depends on where y’all drive, and how frequently y’all get behind the wheel.
Post coauthored by Jessica E. Bodford
Douglas Kenrick is author of The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.