If you’ve ever felt like everyone else on Facebook seems to be having more fun than you, well, you’re not alone, according to a new study by Utah Valley University sociologists Hui-Tzu Grace Chou and Nicholas Edge, published in an academic journal called Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
The study, titled “‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives,” is based on a survey of roughly 425 college students asking them about their own lives and the lives of friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The students were also questioned about their use of Facebook, including frequency, time spent, and common activities.
The survey revealed that students who spend a lot of time on Facebook are relatively more likely to perceive other people as having better lives than themselves. According to the authors, “Those who have used Facebook longer agreed more that others were happier, and agreed less that life is fair, and those spending more time on Facebook each week agreed more that others were happier and had better lives. Furthermore, those that included more people whom they did not personally know as their Facebook ‘friends’ agreed more that others had better lives.” Meanwhile, people who spent less time on Facebook and more time in “real” socializing with friends tended to be happier than subjects who used Facebook intensively.
This isn’t the first academic study to find a correlation between social media use and mental health issues including low self-esteem and depression. In March of last year I wrote about another study, published in Pediatrics, the official publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, detailing a mental health phenomenon called “Facebook Depression” by pediatricians. In addition to obvious threats like cyber-bullying, by allowing some individuals to present idealized images of their own lives, social networks can subtly build unrealistic expectations in users of all ages, but especially among impressionable younger users who are still asserting their own identities. The AAP noted: “Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.” What's more, the AAP warned that “parents may lack a basic understanding of these new forms of socialization, which are integral to their children's lives.”
In the same vein, in November 2010, Case Western Reserve's School of Medicine published a study warning that excessive use of social media -- specifically, “hypertexting” (sending more than 120 messages per school day) and “hypernetworking” (spending more than three hours per day on sites like Facebook) -- is linked to dangerous health problems and antisocial behavior in teens. Hypernetworkers were 60% more likely to have four or more sexual partners; 62% more likely to have tried cigarettes; 69% more likely to be binge drinkers; 69% more likely to have had sex; 79% more likely to have tried alcohol; 84% more likely to have used illicit drugs; and 94% more likely to have been in a physical fight.
Of course none of these studies showing correlation between social media use and mental health issues prove that there is a deeper, causal relationship -- meaning, that social media is actually the source of mental health issues. It’s equally plausible that people already suffering from low self-esteem and depression are more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on social networks, for example simply out of boredom.