Facebook Blues: How You Use the Site Can Make You Depressed, Say Researchers

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Studies find it's difficult to know whether using social media makes people sad, or whether sad people turn to social media, and then feel worse. (Image by Mark Fiore)

Researchers, at least, love Facebook.

A 2012 survey of social science papers related to the social network turned up 412 separate studies. One of the most popular questions: What effect does Facebook have on emotional states?

As it turns out, it's complicated.

I experienced this myself around Thanksgiving of 2008, when I first joined up. For a week or so, I marveled at Facebook's ability to connect me to people who had long ago faded into the remotest recesses  of memory.

By Christmas, I was in the midst of a full-fledged metaphysical breakdown.


Those scrolls down memory lane were killing me. Better to have left that kid from third grade, who now liked to post videos of his weightlifting triumphs, a I last remembered him--a skinny punk banging a double off the schoolyard fence.

It was the collapse of that natural partition between past and present that was upsetting. A few months in, after noting the male-pattern baldness of yet another long-lost pal, I figured out why:

Facebook had punctured the intransigently juvenile aspect of my personality that refused to recognize the passage of time.

And that, of course, provided yet another piece of evidence for the harshest reality of our existence: That we are all going to die.

50 Minutes a Day

Okay, that was my Facebook freakout—how about yours?

Start asking around, and lots of folks will volunteer one resentment or another. They don’t like the time they spend on Facebook. Or they don’t like the way people communicate on Facebook. Or they just don’t like Facebook. As Laurence Scott wrote in his recent book on digital life, The Four-Dimensional Human, “Everyone knows someone perpetually on the brink of quitting” the site.

Yet, whatever gripes people have, they aren’t hurting business. People use Facebook so much it boggled the mind of The New York Times’ James B. Stewart. After reporting in May on the 50 daily minutes Facebook says users spend on its main site, instant messaging application and Instagram property, he noted that amount beat out all other leisure activities save one. Still the king: Watching TV.

Facebook says it has 1.65 billion active users, which is roughly 22 percent of the world’s population. Given the expanding role it plays in so many lives, it’s not surprising the site has been laden with a surfeit of social and political significance, credited with everything from a rise in adultery to the toppling of autocratic regimes.

Hazardous to Your Mental Health?

Dr. Ethan Kross, the director of the Emotion & Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan who has co-authored several papers on Facebook, says the early research was “all over the place” as to whether using the site boosted or depressed a person’s mental state.

But it's the research finding a correlation between Facebook and feeling lousy that has drawn the attention of the media. And to be sure, the literature is replete with ominous titles that appear to have been written half by scientists, half by university press offices. Titles like: They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.”

This type of research is fueling a growing sense that spending too much time online is emotionally perilous. A study making headlines this spring looked at the relationship between social media use and depression. University of Pittsburgh researchers sampled 1,787 U.S. adults, ages 19 through 32, and found an almost 300 percent greater likelihood of depression in the most active users of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit than in those who used them the least.

You wonder how Facebook feels about research that basically communicates its product is a mental hazard. A spokesperson for the company pointed me to a meta-analysis it had collaborated on with two researchers, one of whom, Moira Burke, is a computational social psychologist now working on Facebook’s data science team.

The analysis points out that most previous studies about Facebook and psychological well-being were done using cross-sectional surveys, which means they derive data from research participants at a particular point in time. Such studies are viewed as less able to separate cause and effect.

“You really can’t draw any conclusions about what effects online communication in general or Facebook communication in particular has from cross-sectional data,” said Robert Kraut, a co-author of the meta-analysis (he's consulted for Facebook but doesn't work there).

The University of Pittsburgh researchers acknowledged as much with this disclaimer: “It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void.”

Happiness Deficit

I asked Kraut about one study that  attracted a lot of media attention last year—it came from the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark (the happiest place on earth, apparently). The institute conducted an experiment in which it asked half of 1,095 people, most of whom were daily Facebook users, to abstain from using it for one week.

“People who had taken a break from Facebook felt happier and were less sad and lonely," an online presentation of the study said. Those on the Facebook fast also “reported a significantly higher level of satisfaction” and significantly less stress than those sentenced to remain on the site.

Not everyone was impressed with the study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Kraut thought it was a “reasonable” design for discriminating between cause and effect. “We just don’t know how long [the effects] are likely to last, because the behavioral change was only a week long,” he said.

A small 2013 study also looked at whether Facebook use influences people's assessment of their own well-being over time. Researchers texted online surveys to 82 people every day for two weeks, asking them questions like “How do you feel right now?” Their answers were correlated with their use of Facebook.

“The more people used Facebook the worse they subsequently felt,” the paper reported.

The researchers said "multiple types of evidence" showed there was no doubt of what was cause and what was effect in the study. 

“Facebook use may constitute a unique form of social network interaction that predicts impoverished well-being," they wrote. 

The Big E

Some researchers have divided Facebook use into the categories of "active" and "passive." Active use includes those activities that facilitate direct communications, like commenting on posts or sending messages; passive use refers to the mere consumption of information — like scrolling through your news feed and glimpsing the lawn furniture your cousin just bought.

A handful of studies from different labs have now established links between passive Facebook use and envy or other negative mental states, said Ethan Kross, the University of Michigan researcher who has co-authored one such paper.

According to 2013 research from Germany, “upward social comparison and envy can be rampant” on Facebook and other social networks. That’s because the environment promotes “narcissistic behavior, with most users sharing only positive things about themselves.” Among the 357 study participants, the researchers sussed out an “astounding” number of “envy-inducing incidents,” most frequently related to travel and leisure, social interactions, and “happiness.”

Furthermore, the researchers wrote, some Facebook users may engage in an “envy-coping plan,” involving “even greater self-promotion and impression management.” And that can trigger a “self-promotion-envy spiral.”

A one-upmanship arms race.

Research published in 2015 managed to isolate envy as the culprit in bumming people out, as opposed to other characteristics like number of user friends, usage motivation, and self-esteem.

“Passive Facebook usage predicted envy, and envy predicted declines in affective well-being,” the researchers wrote.

They concluded with this anecdote from Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which she related to The New York Times in 2013. “I’ve had friends call me and say, ‘Your life looks so amazing," Zuckerberg said. "And I tell them, ‘I’m a marketer. I’m only posting the moments that are amazing.'”

'Do We Have to See That?'

A friend of mine, who doesn’t want to give her name (would you?) has been telling me for years that she gets genuinely depressed on Facebook. Her self-diagnosis of the cause of this condition: envy.

“There’s this woman I know and she is constantly posting, and she does some amazing things,” she told me.“There’s this jealous part of me, that’s like, ‘Do we have to see that?’”

“Everyone seems like they’re happy on Facebook. … There’s serial posters, where every day there’s a new post, and it’s almost always something nice and wonderful.”

Yes. After plodding through these studies, I felt the need to reassess my own Great Facebook Freakout of 2008. It wasn’t hard to see that just beneath the Proustian navel-gazing on time gone by lay a strong component of rivalry: If some of those losers from third grade had not exactly set the world on fire, they’d at least gotten a few sparks going. In my view, I was still gathering kindling.

Not that it made me feel any better, but even if I’d done super-well in this status game, just the act of comparison might have been deflating. Contrary to some studies and consistent with others (naturally), research on Facebook and depression published in 2014 indicated “engaging in frequent social comparison of any kind may be deleterious to one’s mental well-being.”

The Happy Studies

There are studies showing Facebook can enhance a sense of social connectedness.

Kraut and Moira Burke, the Facebook researcher, recently published a study that showed "people derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them."

A 2007 study found that college students who were heavy Facebook users reported higher levels of “social capital,” consisting of resources like emotional support and job opportunities that stem from membership in a social network.

A 2012 study found posting status updates decreased loneliness, even when those updates elicited no response. A 2010 study measured electrical activity in the body to record moment-by-moment physiological responses when using Facebook. The equipment logged pleasant emotions when users actively sought out information or directly communicated with their Facebook friends, but fewer such positive feelings when passively browsing.

It's Up to You

Robert Kraut, who has been researching the emotional effects of using the internet going back to its early days, says his and others' research shows your Facebook experience will be good or bad depending on how you use it.

“In particular, having longer, more substantive communication with people you feel closer to seems to be associated with increases in psychological well-being,” he said. “You don’t get the same effects if the communication is with people who are weaker ties. What seems to be crucial is that these are effortful, targeted communications.”

Dos and don'ts?

“Don’t treat it as simple entertainment and consume everything that is put in front of you," Kraut said. "Use it more proactively to communicate with people that you care about.”

Sounds about right. I myself have made my peace with the site. It's true I sometimes find myself scanning that unceasing river of flattering photos, adorable babies and pronouncements of good fortune with a progressive sense of diminishment. Facebook  offers a plethora of choices as to how I want to spend my time, and I don't always make the right one.


But in that, Facebook is a lot like life.