We’re increasingly used to viewing images in the media with critical eyes, assuming that they’ve been altered or airbrushed, but we tend not to apply the same level of scrutiny to our friends’ lives as we view them via social media updates, and the impact of the seemingly prefect lives that our friends have has been linked to depressive symptoms in a new study at the University of Houston.
The research was conducted by Steers, Wickham and Acitelli at Houston and Paolo Alto Universities and was recently published under the title“Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms” in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Steers and team carried out two studies which considered the association between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms.
Comparing our lives to others can make us feel depressed
Both studies provide evidence that people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook.
One of they key links that Steer found between Facebook and depressive symptoms was as a result of the social comparison that we can undertake with such ease using tools like Facebook. We can easily see how our lives and achievements are stacking up against those of our friends and wider circles.
Social comparison way precedes Facebook
We’ve been comparing ourselves to others for years – there are studies going back as far as the 1950s looking at how we compare ourselves to other people in face-to-face situations:
“Although social comparison processes have been examined at length in traditional contexts, the literature is only beginning to explore social comparisons in online social networking settings,” says Steers.
Steers’ research indicates that Facebook is more likely to lower our mood and impact on our feelings of self-worth than traditional face-to-face comparisons. This may be because of the way in which we share our lives on Facebook and how easy it is spend many hours privately comparing ourselves with others.
The amount of different ways in which we can compare ourselves to our peers has also grown:
“One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare,” Steers said.
We feel depressed when we compare ourselves to others on Facebook
Steers’ studies provided evidence that Facebook users felt depressed when comparing themselves to others. Perhaps because our friends are airbrushing their lives as well as their photos. We’re all guilty of thinking carefully about how we portray our lives on social media before we hit the publish button. Most people select only the best photos and the most positive status updates. The humdrum of day-to-day life might not seem worth a status update anyway, so we tend to just highlight and celebrate the good bits.
“If we’re comparing ourselves to our friends’ ‘highlight reels,’ this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives,” says Steer
Unused to assuming that those around us are airbrushing and sanitizing their lives before they share them (even though we all do it) we tend to compare our own lives, warts and all, to the positive online portrayal of other people’s lives and think we’re comparing like with like – which can be testing for even the most emotionally resilient of us.
People who are depressed spend more time socially comparing on Facebook
According to Steers’ research, the impact of Facebook on people facing depression may be exacerbated compared to non-depressed controls because people with depressive symptoms spend more time comparing themselves to others on Facebook. More time spent socially comparing on Facebook was correlated with an increase in depressive symptoms – a bit of an unhappy catch 22.
So what can we do about it?
Whilst the study was small so we shouldn’t be too hasty in drawing lasting wide reaching conclusions from it, we could think carefully about our own engagement with Facebook.
If we’re suffering from depression or are aware of spending a lot of time socially comparing on Facebook and this is bringing our mood down, we should perhaps make a conscious effort to spend less time doing so – or try to bear in mind that the highlight reels we read are just that – highlights – and that when we compare the total of our own lives with the highlights of others’ we are not comparing like with like.
If we think our friends, colleagues or children are finding their internal struggles harder as a result of comparing themselves with a distorted view of friends and family on Facebook, we should highlight to them the differences between Facebook and real life – perhaps using our own timeline as an example and try to encourage them to spend less time socially comparing via social media.