Comparing Yourself to Facebook Friends Is Bad News for Your Mental Health
New research comparing all existing studies into social media and depression confirms what most of us already knew—Facebook is making us all miserable.
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Here's some further evidence that social media is fuelling a generation of depressed introverts who limply click through their ex-partner's wedding photos before posting concerning Facebook updates: A new review into research on the links between social networking and depression has confirmed that comparing yourself with your Facebook friends is more likely to make you depressed then comparing yourself to people in the real world.
Researchers from Lancaster University reviewed studies from 14 countries—involving a total of 35,000 participants—hoping to investigate the phenomenon of "Facebook depression," a clinical term coined in 2011 to describe the depression that develops when adolescents and pre-teens spend excessive amounts of time social networking.
I ask lead researcher David Baker to explain how he investigated the data. "Most of the studies used cross-sectional survey designs, so the researchers would use standardized measures of depression and cross-check them against how often people were using sites and what they were doing." Researchers would then correlate two indicators—frequency of social media use and depression indicators—using statistical analyses.
"We found that comparing yourself with people on social media was more likely to make you feel depressed than comparing yourself offline," Baker explains. "Rumination—meaning you spend a lot of time overthinking your experiences online—was another. So if you log on and see something and you're still thinking about it afterwards, that can make you become depressed." Other factors associated with depression were accepting ex-partners' Facebook friend requests and posting negative status updates.
Baker acknowledges, however, that it's difficult to prove whether Facebook is making us unhappy, or whether unhappy people tend to gravitate towards social networking sites.
"Cause and effect is difficult to tease out with this research," he explains. Some of the papers used regression analysis, which allow us to factor out important things and look at one variable, like predictors of depression." He clarifies that posting negative messages on Facebook does make you more likely to be depressed, but we can't tell whether Facebook caused that.
Scientists have debated for some time now whether social media can help us understand more about depression, or exacerbate its potentially life-threatening symptoms. Platforms like Instagram and Tumblr can provide supportive communities for those struggling with mental health issues, although other evidence suggests that exposure to images of self-harm can promote self-mutilating behavior. Despite this, Baker is optimistic that social media might not all be bad, and he hopes to explore its beneficial potential in future research.
"I want to see whether social networking sites can be used as a supportive mechanism for bipolar disorder," he explains. Until then, if you see a friend posting concerning messages online, why not reach out and check they're doing all right?