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SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to social media, the distance between friends and loved ones is smaller than ever. A simple click or scroll can provide a detailed update of the whos, whats, whens, wheres and whys in a matter of seconds.
But the ease at which one can paint a beautiful and worry-free portrait of one’s life online can be downright depressing to those who are bogged down by the not-so-ethereal. Literally.
Too much time spent comparing your life to the seemingly perfect lives of your “friends” on Facebook can trigger depressive symptoms, according to a new study out of the University of Houston. The study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, examines the potential impact online social comparison can have on a person’s mental health.
We’ve all done it: Pulled up a status update detailing a friend’s latest European adventure while simultaneously seeking solace in the chocolate bowl residing on the desk of our windowless cubicle; scrolled through photos of a friend’s impeccably-decorated new home while losing heart at the sight of the laundry piles cluttering our own tiny apartment; checked Facebook at the mechanic shop to see a friend’s new BMW while waiting to see if the old station wagon will survive its 20th breakdown.
“You can’t really control the impulse to compare because you never know what your friends are going to post,” said lead researcher Mai-Ly Steers in a press release Monday. “In addition, most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad. If we’re comparing ourselves to our friends’ ‘highlight reels,’ this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.”
It’s not hard to get sucked into this particular rabbit hole, and no one can dispute the fact that social networking in general has given entirely new meaning to the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses.” But just how harmful can these comparisons become?
Steers, a doctoral candidate in social psychology, conducted two different experiments on the subject — specifically targeting Facebook users. Along with her co-authors, Steers measured the Facebook usage, depressive symptoms and tendency to compare in more than 100 people.
Both studies yielded significant evidence to support the idea that people who spend more time on Facebook are more likely to compare themselves to others, and people who have a tendency to compare are more prone to depressive symptoms.
Most of our Facebook friends tend to post about the good things that occur in their lives, while leaving out the bad. If we're comparing ourselves to our friends' 'highlight reels,' this may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives.
–Mai-Ly Steers, University of Houston
“It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feeling and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand,” Steers said.
The report, “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” suggests that when someone who is already feeling down dives into the world of promotions, weddings, parties and babies, the “distorted” view of the lives of their friends can make them feel lonely and isolated.
“It’s important to basically recognize: If the images of our fabulous friend are causing us to feel more depressed, maybe we need to step away,” Steers told the Washington Post.
The next step? Developing effective intervention programs that keep people who are at risk for depression from spending too much time on Facebook, Steers said.
“This research and previous research indicates the act of socially comparing oneself to others is related to long-term destructive emotions,” Steers said.
So if you are prone compare, maybe think about signing off for awhile. Your well-being may depend on it.