Constant comparison: Passive Facebook users at greater risk of depression

BOCHUM, Germany — The joys of life can often be found on Facebook. From wild parties and beautiful cityscapes to delicious food and silly selfies, social media posts are often an unrealistic depiction of day-to-day lifestyles. Many, if not most, Facebook users are careful to only post pictures that present themselves in the best light, and a new study now reveals how that behavior can be harmful on those are more passive when logging onto the site.

Constantly seeing peers and friends in especially glamorous and happy settings may cause low self-esteem and depression among people who don’t actively post on the social media platform, but still log on occasionally to see what their friends are up to. According to researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) in Germany, passive Facebook users who tend to compare themselves to others end up feeling like everyone is better than them, which can subsequently lead to feelings of depression.

So far, research performed on the relationship between social media usage and depression has produced contradictory results. So, RUB researchers, led by Dr. Phillip Ozimek, ran one experimental and two questionnaire studies. For the first study, two groups of participants were asked to spend five minutes writing information about the first five people they saw either on their Facebook wall or on the website of the Faculty of Catholic Theological at RUB. A third group did not take part in this task, but all three groups then completed a self-esteem questionnaire.

“It was shown that being confronted by social information on the Internet – which is selective and only positive and favorable, whether on Facebook and on employee websites – leads to lower self-esteem,” says Dr. Ozimek in a media release.

In order to investigate long-term prospects, questionnaires were utilized once again. This time, over 800 subjects were asked about their Facebook habits, their tendencies to compare themselves with others, their self-esteem, and any depression symptoms. When participants reported a tendency to make social comparisons, researchers discovered a positive correlation between passive Facebook use and depressive symptoms.

“So, when I have a strong need to compare and keep seeing in my newsfeed that other people are having great holidays, making great deals, and buying great, expensive things while everything I see out of my office window is grey and overcast, it lowers my self-esteem,” Dr. Ozimek explains. “And if I experience this day after day, over and over again, this can promote greater depressive tendencies over the long term.”

Finally, for the third study, questionnaires were used to determine if these findings could be applied to other social media platforms besides just Facebook. The research team chose to focus on Xing, a German business-networking platform similar to LinkedIn. While it was noted that Xing profiles weren’t nearly as exaggerated or “candy-coated,” researchers nonetheless discovered similar trends to their Facebook research.

“Overall, we were able to show that it is not the use of social networks that generally and directly leads to or is related to depression, but that certain preconditions and a particular type of use increase the risk of depressive tendencies,” Dr. Ozimek concludes. “It is important that this impression that everyone else is better off can be an absolute fallacy. In fact, very few people post on social media about negative experiences. However, the fact that we are flooded with these positive experiences on the Internet gives us a completely different impression.”

The study is published in the journal Behavior and Information Technology.

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