Facebook: the Web's unhappiness scapegoat
It's fitting that Facebook features blue iconography and interface design. Interacting with these networks, especially Facebook, is often said to increase a person's feelings of loneliness, depression, and general unhappiness.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven confirms this hypothesis. The researchers text-messaged 82 Facebook users over the course of two weeks and found that "the more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time."
"Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive 'offline' social networks powerfully do," the study concludes, "the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults -- it may undermine it."
The Verge notes that the study is limited in scope, and its impact has been over-stated by the media. Facebook isn't inherently negative -- how users feel after using the service depends on how they're using it. Passive users are more likely to experience the problems the study details; users who engage with the service by playing games, posting Status Updates, and interacting with their friends don't experience the same problems.
They might be guilty of proliferating another emotion, though: anger.
Researchers at the Beihang University in China recently published a study stating that anger is more likely to spread via a social network -- in this case Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service -- than any other emotion.
The study is limited to Weibo and Chinese Internet users, but if Facebook users show similar behavior, it could mean that even active users are negatively affected by the time they spend on the world's largest social network. (Many Facebook users can probably provide plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that anger quickly spreads throughout the service.)
Some might argue that expressing all of that anger -- "venting" -- is better than choking it down and moving along with life. But, as the Happiness Project's Gretchen Rubin notes, the opposite is often true: It's better to fake happiness than to punch a pillow or, perhaps, kvetch on a social network. Rubin quotes philosopher and psychologist William James to back up her point:
“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together," James says, "and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” (Or, as every smarmy businessman has advised up-and-coming workers: "Fake it 'til you make it.")
Unless it isn't, as a study from the University of Michigan showed in 2011 by tracking bus drivers' moods after they offered fake smiles -- dubbed surface acting -- to passengers. “There have been some suggestions that if you do this over a long period that you start to feel inauthentic,” the university's assistant professor of management Brent Scott said. “Yes, you’re trying to cultivate positive emotions, but at the end of the day you may not feel like yourself anymore.”
Trying to determine Facebook's impact on mood might be as futile as determining Google's affect on our intelligence, as the Atlantic suggested in 2008 with the infamous "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" cover story. As the Verge and the New Yorker both note, the problem might not be Facebook (or Google) at all -- there's evidence suggesting that the problem is the Internet and our newly digitally-obsessed lives.
"We focus on Facebook because it's the largest and most information-packed of our 21st century social networks, but that only makes Facebook Exhibit A in a future where we’re all hyper-connected," the Verge writes. "We’ve all felt the pangs of envy or depression that internet-induced-FOMO [fear of missing out] provides. Facebook is just the perfect scapegoat."
Maybe that's why it's so blue.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for PandoDaily]