While Facebook and other social media aim to make users feel more connected with one another, they can often have the opposite effect, leading us to feel alone and unfulfilled as we scroll through the exuberant status updates and playful photos of our friends. At least that's the conclusion from a new series of studies by Stanford University's psychology department. Here, a brief guide:
How does touching base with friends make us feel bad?
The college students in the Stanford studies regularly overestimated how happy their peers were, and wound up feeling more sad and dejected about themselves and their own lives as a result. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," says lead author Alex Jordan. And Facebook exploits that "Achilles' heel of human nature," says Libby Copeland in Slate, "by showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers."
How was the research conducted?
Jordan wasn't out to study Facebook — he wanted to understand how students take stock of their own moods and those of others. In one study, he and his colleagues asked 80 freshmen whether their friends had recently experienced big emotional events, and they consistently underestimated the negative ones and overestimated the positive. In another, the researchers asked 140 Stanford students to gauge their friends' happiness but most couldn't do so accurately. A third study found that the more students underestimated their peers' negative emotions, the more lonely and sad they felt. Jordan made the connection with Facebook after noticing that his friends felt similarly gloomy after reading cheery status updates.
What does it all mean?
There's a "disconnect" between "the fun depicted in Facebook photos and (some) status updates and the crushing ennui we often experience when looking at a lot of said photos and updates," says Anna North at Jezebel. "Our posts on Facebook may depict the high points of our lives, but we're most likely to troll through others' posts during our low points — when we're avoiding a looming deadline, killing a dull evening at home, or stalking an ex after a recent breakup."
Who is most affected by this?
Women may be "especially vulnerable" to this negative Facebook side effect, says Slate's Copeland. Not only are women reportedly more unhappy than ever, but more women than men are on Facebook. And women tend to be more active on the site and more likely to engage in personal communications, whereas men tend to use it to share information related to the news or current events.
What can people do to avoid the Facebook blues?
Jordan suggests changing the way we view the social-networking site and all our friends' posts on them. Think of a Facebook profile in the same way you might the obviously airbrushed cover of a women's magazine, and remember, "You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy," says Copeland. And, if all else fails, use Facebook to find fat exes.