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UH Study: Spending Time On Facebook Can Trigger Depressive Symptoms

Comparing how you feel on the inside to what your friends choose to share on the outside can lead to some uncomfortable feelings. But it’s not Facebook’s fault.


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Chances are you’re one of the more than a billion people around the world who check their Facebook News Feed at least once a week. 

But among all the videos of adorable animals, TV and movie memes, and sugary inspirational messages, there could be something a bit insidious lurking in those status updates. Spending time on Facebook can contribute to symptoms of depression, according to a recent study from the University of Houston.

UH researcher Mai-Ly Steers is on the verge of earning her doctorate in social psychology. About two years ago, her younger sister had to miss a high school homecoming dance, because a boy didn’t ask her to be his date. 

“She was pretty devastated about it. And then the next day, her friends’ photos from the dance began to appear on her Facebook newsfeed, and she said she felt a lot worse,” Steers said.

That experience inspired Steers and her colleagues to take a closer look at whether social comparison — comparing one’s experiences to the experiences shared by friends on Facebook — played a role in her sister’s reaction.

Researchers have long studied social comparison in real life situations. However, Steers says there’s hardly any research on comparing ourselves to others in social media.

Steers had about 150 UH students keep a two-week diary of their feelings after checking their Facebook News Feed. She says the findings support the hypothesis that the more time people spend on Facebook, the more likely they’ll make social comparisons, and feel depressive symptoms.

But Steers is quick to point out this is just a correlation. Facebook itself doesn’t cause depression. It’s merely the conduit for people to share things we wouldn’t have known about them a few years ago.

“A lot of our Facebook friends are not people that we see on a daily basis. So the types of information we’re getting are very different than the kind of information that we’d get in face-to-face communications,” Steers said.

For example, when we’re face-to-face with a friend who’s going through a tough time, we are less likely to bring up getting a dream job, buying a new house or car, or any other events that can make our lives appear to be utterly fabulous. Yet many people generally have no compunctions about doing that on Facebook.

“It’s not a malicious thing. It’s just they’re sending a message en masse to a bunch of people. Oftentimes, we forget who our audience is. We have so many friends on Facebook. And how do we know what we put out there is necessarily going to influence or impact other people? We don’t,” Steers said.

Steers says people who feel worse after making social comparisons on Facebook should log off, and go hang out with a friend. But she concedes that’s easier said than done. Steers hopes future research into the psychological effects of social media will produce better tools for those who need help untethering themselves.