By now, there's good reason to believe that Facebook can make you sad—mainly because we envy the seemingly perfect lives our friends present for us to see. A new experimental study confirms the envy explanation, but adds a twist: Facebook only gets us down when we don't take part in the conversation.
Academic studies of Facebook began almost the moment it launched in 2004. Much of the early research focused principally on what people, then mostly college students, were using Facebook for, but it wasn't long before psychologists started asking how Facebook affects our emotions. The short answer is that sometimes it's good for us and sometimes it's not, but researchers—including some working for Facebook—are still trying to figure out the mechanisms by which the social networking site influences our feelings.
Passive users felt, on average, about five percent worse at one check-in compared with the previous one, and generally felt worse the more they used Facebook passively.
To probe that issue, Philippe Verduyn, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leuven, in Belgium, and colleagues from the University of Michigan focused on whether we use Facebook actively or passively. In the first of two studies, the researchers brought 84 undergraduate students into a lab and asked them how they were feeling (on a scale from zero to 100) then had them poke around on Facebook for 10 minutes. Half the group used the site actively, posting and commenting on others' posts, while the other half were told to just look at what others had posted.
Asked immediately afterward, the participants reported feeling about the same regardless of how they'd spent those 10 minutes on Facebook. But when the psychologists checked in later that day, undergraduates in the passive-use group reported feeling about nine percent worse than they had previously felt, while those in the active-use group reported no changes at all.
In a follow-up study, the team tracked 82 undergraduates over the course of six days. Five times a day, the researchers texted the students to inquire into their mood and how often they'd used Facebook both actively and passively, and how much envy they felt. Passive users felt, on average, about five percent worse at one check-in compared with the previous one, and generally felt worse the more they used Facebook passively. Active use, on the other hand, had no apparent effect on mood.
And what about envy? Looking at the data a variety of ways, the team found that there was no direct effect of passive Facebook use on mood—instead, the effect operated through feelings of envy. "Passive Facebook usage predicted envy," the team writes, "and envy predicted declines in affective well-being."
"One question raised by these findings concerns why people continue to passively use Facebook if this process undermines their affective well-being," the researchers write. Perhaps Facebook is addictive, perhaps its benefits outweigh the negative consequences, or perhaps people simply aren't aware of its emotional impact. Clearly this is still an open question.