The more you browse through your news feed, post comments and like posts on Facebook, the more likely you are to feel unhappy and dissatisfied with your life.
It's not that people gravitate toward social media when they're feeling blue, found a new study. Instead, Facebook use actually seems to breed discontent. It's still not clear why -- and it's possible that only certain styles of Facebooking lead to distress -- but the researchers have some suspicions.
"Given the public nature of these sites, people end up reporting a lot of the positive things going on in their lives, and a user of Facebook might end up with a biased impression of other people's lives," said Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "So, they might feel sub-par compared to their friends and all the wonderful things their friends are doing."
Real-life relationships have all sorts of benefits, studies show. Positive social interactions can boost happiness and intelligence and lead to better decision-making. People who are more socially integrated live longer, healthier lives. The list, Ybarra said, "goes on and on."
There has been far less research on the psychological effects of social media, even though more than 500 million people log on to Facebook every day, and twice that many have profiles.
To see how the site might affect well being, Ybarra and colleagues collected data on about 80 people, who started and ended the two-week study by completing psychological surveys that assessed their levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, depression and other psychological factors.
During the 14-day study period, the researchers texted each participant at five random times a day and asked them questions about how they were feeling at that moment and how much time they had spent on Facebook since the last message.
When people spent more time on Facebook, they became both less happy in the moment and less satisfied with their lives in general, the team reports today in the journal PLOS ONE. Because data came in throughout the day, the researchers were able to show that Facebook caused the spike in gloominess, rather than the other way around.
The new study pooled together information on all of the participants, so it's still not clear whether some people are more vulnerable to the downer potential of Facebook or if certain kinds of activity on the site are most likely to make people feel bad. It may be, for example, that people feel worse when they are passive users but they might feel better if they engage in conversations and comments. It will take more research to parse out the details.
"Because Facebook is such a pervasive avenue with which we communicate and interact, it is really important to start trying to unpack why and how it's affecting our psychology and our daily lives," said Lindsay Graham, a graduate student in personality and social psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who co-authored a recent review of Facebook research.
"This particular study shows us there's something really important going on about how we use Facebook and what that can do to alter our mood and wellbeing for better or for worse."
For now, experts are not recommending that everyone abandon Facebook for the sake of their wellbeing. Instead, it may simply be worth becoming mindful of how much time you spend on the site and how your Facebook activity makes you feel.
It may also help to ask yourself what you're not doing when you're on Facebook, like having real-life interactions with people or doing other activities that bring you joy.
And if other people's glowing posts make you feel bad about your own life, remember that, on a site like Facebook, people tend to broadcast the good stuff and hide the rest.
"There is more variety to any person's life," Ybarra said, "than what they post on Facebook."