Why Checking Facebook Makes Us Feel Bad About Ourselves

Last weekend, I consumed a massive seafood tower with my wife as a late Valentine’s Day feast. It was one of those things at one of our favorite restaurants I’d wanted to do for years, so I shamelessly took photos. I saw sharing the images as a means to share a piece of my relationship’s intimacy and adventure (we clearly don’t do extreme sports). But were this most other evenings of the year, when I’m eating a far humbler meal on my couch, what would I think of this obnoxiously gleaming pile of crustacean?

Researchers from Humboldt University and Darmstadt Technical University have recently published a study (PDF) on Facebook’s role in our own unhappiness. Their findings are staggering: Over a third of people reported being unhappy following their most recent experience on Facebook. When later asked why users might feel frustrated or exhausted after using Facebook, almost a third of people responded “envy.”

“We find that “envy” emerges as the category of the highest importance with 29.6% of respondents mentioning it as a major reason behind frustration and exhaustion of “others.” Feelings of envy by far surpass such causes as “lack of attention” (19.5%), “loneliness” (10.4%) and “time loss” (13.7%). This outcome suggests that even though respondents do not admit feeling envy when asked directly, they readily relate this emotion to frustration resulting from FB use.”

Furthermore, of all envy a person experiences in their entire lives, users report that Facebook is causing about 20% of it, serving as what researchers call a “breeding ground” for these feelings.

“We find that envy about “travel and leisure,” “social interactions” and “happiness” belong to the three most frequently mentioned causes of envy triggered by Facebook use. In daily encounters, however, “travel and leisure”, “success in job” and “abilities” of another person represent the three most common categories. Overall, the fact that “travel and leisure” account for a whopping 56.3% of all envy incidents triggered by FB is interesting. The reasons for this are likely rooted in a high share of travel photos posted by FB users. Indeed, while sharing content directly depicting expensive material possession might be seen as bragging by others; posting photos from vacations has long established itself as a norm on [social networking sites]. As a result, by sharing this type of content respondents do not risk to be accused of engaging in the outright self-promotion, while still, in a way, doing so.”

In other words, Facebook causes envy because we’re jealous of one another’s travels. But it’s not just on us. Researchers find that the design of Facebook itself can actually play a role in feeding unpleasant parts of our social psyche. While active following--like checking in on your sibling’s feed to see how they’d been doing--generally leads to a positive experience, passive following (seeing the scores of your acquaintances’ images of travels, parties, and dinners that show up in your feed) have been found to negatively impact our life satisfaction. And here’s where new research says things get interesting. To respond, users don’t get mad, they get even.

“Further, as part of their envy-coping plan, some users may engage in even greater self-promotion and impression management. After all, overstatement of personal accomplishment is a common reaction to envy feelings. This behavior can trigger the phenomenon we denoted as the self-promotion envy spiral, with users reacting with even more self-promotional content to the self-promotion of others. As a result, envy-ridden character of the platform climate can become even more pronounced.

So Facebook’s feed is spurring an arms race to share our happiness. While researchers don’t offer advice to either Facebook or users to avoid envy, it seems reasonable that cutting back on passive feed consumption is key. This premise challenges Facebook’s core design--maybe Facebook’s homepage shouldn’t be a stream of the most impressive moments of everyone else we know. In the meantime, to curb your own negative emotions, use Facebook to check in on friends and family by actively taking interest in their lives and clicking on their profiles. Don’t drown yourself in the flood of beach photos and seafood towers from relative strangers when you’re bored for an evening. Because you and I aren’t missing out. Nobody lives like that every day. . .right, guys? Right, guys?!?

See more here (PDF).

Mark Wilson is a writer who started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day. His work has also appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.

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