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Does looking at Facebook make you sad?

By Peter Rosen | Posted - Nov 21st, 2013 @ 10:31pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Janet Thaeler, who does online marketing, spends a lot of time on Facebook for both work and pleasure, and she said sometimes she feels a little envious.

Scrolling through her Facebook friends she points out photos of a friend beside celebrities Larry King and Hoda Kotb and snapshots of her sister's travels across Europe.

"If you look through her Facebook page, it's just all smiling people all the time and everything is so perfect for her," Thaeler said.

Utah Valley University sociologist Hui-Tzu Grace Chou can relate.

"Several years ago when I started using Facebook, I began to feel that all of my friends seem to have great lives," she said.

That inspired Chou to study undergrads' experience with Facebook.

Chou found the more time people spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to think others were happier and that life was unfair. Additionally the study found that the more strangers they had as Facebook "friends," the more likely they were to think others have better lives.

"It only gives us the positive moments or happy moments of life," Chou said. "Therefore if we use this unrealistic expectation to evaluate our own life, it is very likely for people to feel depressed or frustrated."

Of course, measuring real life against the picture we get on Facebook is an imperfect comparison.

"You know it depends on where I'm at in my own life," Thaeler said. "If I'm sad, if I'm in a bad place personally, not feeling grateful for what I have or something, then I'm more affected by it."

Social psychologists have a name for measuring ourselves against someone we think is better than us — upward comparison — and they've studied the effect it has on our mood.

You may earn a decent income, but according to one study, if your neighbors earn more, you're more likely to say you're not as happy as you would be if you were living beside neighbors who earned less.

Positive psychologist Trish Henrie-Barrus said comparing ourselves to others is something that comes naturally "because as a child you learn how you should act by talking to people, watching your parents, watching your peers and so we continue to do that. Be very careful in comparing yourself, because we tend to compare our weaknesses with others' strengths."

A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics warns about "Facebook Depression" among teenagers who are often hyper-conscious of measuring up to their peers.

"When I'm not feeling so good about myself, I'll check social media," said high school student Lauren Stephenson. "It never makes me feel better. You know, nobody every talks about their problems. Everything's good. Everything's happy."


It only gives us the positive moments or happy moments of life. Therefore if we use this unrealistic expectation to evaluate our own life, it is very likely for people to feel depressed or frustrated.

–Hui-Tzu Grace Chou, UVU sociologist


Of course, social comparison can be a positive "if we believe that we can change and reach that goal," Henrie-Barrus said.

"Motivational theory says we don't do anything, we don't even try anything, unless we believe that it's going work out for us," she said.

High school student Abdi Nor compares himself to a straight-A student for motivation to do better.

"I wonder how he got straight A's and I look at myself," he said. "I'm an average student, so what (do) I have to do to get at his level?"

Student Liam Sparling compares himself to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson online for inspiration.

"He started out average and he really worked hard to be where he is today. I think if I tried hard enough, I could get there," Sparling said.

Janet Thaeler looks to Facebook to help her set goals.

"I see people that are at the top of my industry and what they're doing and I learn from them all. So I feel like I have a whole lot of mentors," she said.

One important point to note about Chou's study: It doesn't show whether Facebook itself makes people sad, or whether people who use Facebook more often, tend to be unhappier in the first place.

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