Spending a lot of time on Facebook is linked to diminished well-being, according to many studies. Yet questions linger about cause and effect—perhaps people who are already lonely simply spend more time on social media. New studies reveal that Facebook can indeed affect mood and mental state, and whether the effect is positive or negative depends heavily on how a person interacts with his or her contacts. Several of the new findings reveal that when Facebook hurts, the underlying culprit is—you guessed it—envy.
A study published in February 2015 in Computers in Human Behavior surveyed 736 college students and found that when Facebook evoked envy, it increased symptoms of depression. But a March 2015 study from the same journal found that Facebook use can also decrease depression if users sign on seeking social connection and support and then feel they have received it.
Those studies did not attempt to figure out why some people experienced envy and others did not but others have found that the way a user interacts with Facebook may be crucial. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven in Belgium tracked 173 students’ habits over time and found that passive use—browsing news feeds, for example—led to reduced well-being by increasing feelings of envy. Active use, such as posting and commenting, had no such effect, according to the two studies, published in April 2015 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Another important factor seems to be how close you are to the people with whom you interact. Two related experiments published in November 2015 in Computers in Human Behavior were the first to explore the role of relationship strength in users’ emotional responses to posts on the site. Among a sample of 207 American adults and 194 German college students, the researchers found that people more often felt positive emotions than negative ones when browsing the site, and their emotions were amplified when reading posts from someone they knew well. “Empathy is more pronounced when the relationship is closer, so one is more likely to ‘catch’ the happiness of a close friend than a casual acquaintance,” says study co-author Ruoyun Lin, a doctoral student at the Leibniz Institute’s Knowledge Media Research Center in Tübingen, Germany. Close friends can inspire envy, too, but the researchers found that this type of envy tended to be benign—the overall reaction to a friend’s good news was usually positive.
The takeaway, the experts say, is that you can control how Facebook makes you feel. If you tend to compare yourself with others or get envious easily, you might consider limiting your time spent on social networking sites or make a conscious effort to use them in active rather than passive ways. “Our findings show the importance of human agency,” says Edson Tandoc, Jr., co-author of the February 2015 study and assistant professor in the Division of Journalism and Publishing at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It is not technology such as Facebook that affects our feelings per se but rather how we use it.”
People who rant online may have offline rage, too
Releasing pent-up anger can be very healing, so it is no surprise that in this tech-dominated age more of us are turning to the Internet to air our grievances. In fact, 46 percent of Twitter users said they tweet as a way to deal with anger and 37 percent hoped that the person or group they vented about would see their online commentary, according to data collected by Ryan Martin, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. In the short term this "e-anger" may feel cathartic: a study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking by Martin and his colleagues in 2013 found that 100 percent of the 24 participants who ranted online said they felt calm and relaxed afterward.
Yet unleashing frustrations in the digital space is not always healthy. The study had participants fill out a survey, which measured their tendency to experience anger, how they expressed it and any consequences related to it. Researchers found that people who had ranted online were not only more irritable than the average person, they also experienced more consequences of anger offline, averaging one physical and two verbal fights a month. Whether or not posting fiery comments makes you more aggressive is unclear but Martin believes that “the more you vent through social media, the more likely you are to utilize negative expression styles in other areas of your life and vice versa.” Our digital and “real-life” selves can feed off each other.