The Facebook effect; why seeing a highlight reel of other people's lives is making people depressed

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We've all found ourselves glaring enviously at a friend’s holiday photographs on Facebook. We can't help but compare our own lives to those that appear on our news feeds. 

But new research on the psychological affects of this Facebook habit shows that it can have a negative impact on our happiness and wellbeing.

"Depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand," says Mai-Ly Steers, researcher at at University of Houston's Department of Psychology. 

She conducted two tests investigating the impact comparing yourself with other people on Facebook had on users' psychological health in a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Her research on the topic is presented in a piece titled "Seeing Everyone Else's Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms".

The first test found a correlation between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms. Similarly, the second study found a relationship between the amount of time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms was mediated by social comparisons on Facebook.

 "One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare," said Steers. 

"You can't really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post. In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad. If we're comparing ourselves to our friends' 'highlight reels,' this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives."

For anyone who is already having a bad day or feeling low, a distorted view of a friend's life may make them feel alone in their internal struggles, which may magnify their feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Steers says studies since the 1950s have found that socially comparing oneself to another during face-to-face interactions correlates with long-term destructive emotions. Though comparison are virtual on Facebook, it seems the impact may be no less.

"Any benefit gained from making social comparisons is temporary and engaging in frequent social comparison of any kind may be linked to lower well-being," said Steers.

The study adds to a growing body of research that says Facebook - the world's largest social network where over a billion people are signed up and over half of them log in in daily - can have a negative consequence on our well-being. 

In a 2013 study by Hubert Curien Multidisciplinary Institute (IPHC) in France, participants answered questions about how they felt, how worried they were, how lonely they felt at that moment, and how much they had used Facebook every day for a fortnight. Researchers found that the more the participants used the site, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.

Another group of researchers suggested in 2009 that envy also increases with Facebook use. The more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt. 

Last year, a study on moods by Facebook published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, altered nearly 700,000 users' News Feeds to show either only happy or sad posts from friends. They found that the tone of friends' posts had a corresponding effect on users' moods. Consequently, the social network was was criticised for manipulating and playing with user emotions.

Of course, there are positive effects of using the website. In an experiment by the University of Missouri, a group of psychologists found when subjects were actively engaged with Facebook, their physiological response measured a significant uptick in happiness. But when they were passively browsing, however, the positive effect disappeared.

It seems scrolling through a Facebook newsfeed without actively contributing to the content you view has the most adverse affect on mental wellbeing. The key is to avoid the temptation to aimlessly scroll through our newsfeed while looking at beautiful holiday snaps. 

Could you quit Facebook? One reader tells us why she cut herself off from the social network and never looked back.

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Stylist Team