July 21, 2021

The Effects of Facebook on Mental Health

Ivan Alsina Jurnet
The Effects of Facebook on Mental Health

In the past decade, Facebook usage has risen dramatically, changing the way people relate, communicate, and live. Although a variety of social media sites exist, Facebook  remains the largest social media network with 1.84 billion users that visit the social networking site on a daily basis. However, while Facebook has grown in popularity, researchers and practitioners have begun expressing concerns about its impact on mental health.

The early optimism about its potential benefits (Gentile, Twenge, Freeman, & Campbell, 2012; Gonzales & Hancock, 2011) has given way to widespread concern about its possible negative consequences over users’ quality of life and emotional well-being (Yoon, Kleinman, Mertz & Brannick, 2019). Recently, the Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma presented a dystopian picture of social media, showing how its pervasive design can affect user’s behaviors, emotion, and thoughts. It is therefore essential to understand what the potential psychological effects of using Facebook are on the general population. Specifically, there exists ample literature investigating the emotional consequences of Facebook use on both adults and adolescents. 

Nowadays, while further research is necessary, the negative effects of the excessive use of Facebook have been well documented for a variety of psychological constructs:

1) Self-esteem

The exposure to social media is usually associated with changes in self-evaluation (which includes self-esteem) due to social comparison processes and their consequences. Authors like Vogel (Vogel, Rose, Roberts & Eckes, 2014) revealed that Facebook use is linked to lower self-esteem in adults, due to an increased exposure to upward social comparisons.

2) Depression

Several studies have shown that as time spent on Facebook increases, depressive symptoms can also increase. In particular, the literature suggests that Facebook can be associated with a depressive mood in high school (Pantic et al., 2012) and undergraduate students (Labrague, 2014; Steers, Wickham, & Acitelli, 2014; Yoon et al., 2019), as well as in adults (Yoon et al., 2019). It is also interesting to mention that some scientific evidence suggests that users who gave up Facebook reported fewer depressive symptoms than those still using it (Tromholt, 2016). In a similar way, a recent study conducted with adults showed that abstaining from Facebook for four weeks has a positive impact on users’ subjective wellbeing and slightly reduces depression (Allcott, Braghieri, Eichmeyer & Gentzkow, 2020).

There are also studies that provide indirect links between Facebook use and depression. Thus, for example, an excessive use of Facebook has been associated with high levels of envy, which in turn predicts depression (Tandoc, Ferrucci, & Duffy, 2015; Verduyn et al., 2015). The time spent on Facebook has also been associated with social loneliness and social avoidance in college students (Lemieux, Lajoie & Trainor, 2013) and adults (Song et al., 2014). All in all, these findings suggest that cognitive processes can influence the relationship between Facebook usage and depression.

Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that Facebook creates a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression” (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). Essentially, spending too much time on Facebook can lead to increased depressive symptoms, which are in turn tied to a variety of unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, among others (Yuen et al., 2018). The specialized literature has already informed of the emerging phenomenon of cybersuicide, a term that refers to the use of the Internet and social media for matters related to suicide and its ideation (Narayan, Das, Das & Bhandari, 2019). However, the relationship between the use of Facebook and suicidal tendencies should be further examined in the future.

3) Stress and anxiety

The use of Facebook can also increase user’s stress levels, produce anxiety, and negatively affect their mood. 

Recent research studies have shown that time spent on Facebook can provoke a negative emotional state in the general population (Burke, Marlow, & Lento, 2010; Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja & Bruxmann, 2013). In particular, it is interesting to mention that studies have found a link between the use of Facebook and high levels of stress in new parents (Bartholomew, Schoppe-Sullivan, Glassman, Kamp Dush, & Sullivan, 2012), mothers (Padoa, Berle & Roberts, 2018), and undergraduate students (Labrague, 2014). 

Interestingly, one study using a longitudinal daily diary method found that the more participants used Facebook, the more negative mood they later felt (Kross et al., 2013). In a similar way, in a study conducted with 312 college students, it was found that those who spent 20 minutes passively browsing Facebook, compared to those who spent time simply browsing the Internet, reported worsened mood (Yuen et al., 2018). According to some authors, the mood decline mainly occurs because users feel they wasted time and engaged in something that was only a little meaningful by being active on Facebook (Sagioglou, & Greitemeyer, 2014). 

Finally, it is important to note that not just the time spent on Facebook but also the number of Facebook friends have been connected to high levels of cortisol levels in adolescents, which is a good indicator of anxiety and stress (Morin-Major et al., 2016). These results point towards that more friends on Facebook can lead to a worse mood.

A sign showing zero love hearts


Taken together, these findings highlight the importance of research on social media phenomena such as Facebook. Although some studies have shown that Facebook has positive psychological benefits such as the perceived emotional and social support from others (Akbulut & Günüç, 2012); the reduced feelings of isolation (Asante & Nyarko, 2014) or a greater health and wellness satisfaction (Asbury & Hall, 2013), there are also some serious disadvantages that must be considered such an increased envy, a low self-esteem, a lowered life satisfaction or a dampened mood.

It is for those reasons that recognized psychologists like Jelena Kecmanovic, an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University, identified some recommendations to protect mental health from the use of services like Facebook:

1. Limit when and where you use Facebook. Limiting Facebook usage results in significant reductions in the levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and sleep problems. It is recommendable to turn off the notifications or to put the phone in airplane mode during meals with family and friends, when walking with a partner or playing with children, or when having a meeting at the workplace. Don’t keep your phone in the bedroom because it would have a negative influence on your sleep quality.

2. Take regular breaks and plan “detox” periods. Schedule regular multi-day breaks from Facebook. Studies suggest that 5 days or a week without using Facebook reduces stress and increases life satisfaction. During some weeks, it is recommendable to limit the use of Facebook to 10 minutes per day.

3. Pay attention to what you do and how you feel. Instead of scrolling through the news feed, reflect about how you feel during and after the session. Think about why you are using it, how do you feel, and whether that’s really you want. You may notice that a few short usage helps you feel better than spending 45-60 minutes exhaustively scrolling though the news feed.

4. Approach Facebook mindfully; ask ‘why?’. If you look at Facebook as the first thing in the morning, think about what is the main reason for this behavior. Is it maybe a habit that serves as an avoidance to the day that is coming? Do you notice that you get a craving to look at Facebook when you are trying to be concentrated at the workplace? Be clear and brave with yourself. Everytime you check Facebook ask the question: Why am I doing it?

5. Prune. Try to unfollow, unfriend or block the Facebooks’ friends or companies that are not interesting for you. A recent study found that the number of friends in Facebook increases the levels of anxiety and stress. Pruning some contacts and adding motivational or funny sites will decrease the negative effects of Facebook.

6. Stop social media from replacing real life. Make sure that the digital interactions don’t become a substitute for face-to-face interactions.

References:

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Allcott, H., Braghieri, L., Eichmeyer, S., Gentzkow, M. (2020). The welfare effects of social media. American Economic  Review, 110(3), 629–676. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1257/ aer.20190658

Asante, K. O., & Nyarko, J. (2014). The physical and behavioural consequences of Facebook use among university students. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(27), 774e781. dx.doi.org/10.5901/ mjss.2014.v5n27p774

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