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Numbing, Envy-Inducing, and Inspiring; A new study about Facebook Use

At 31, I was not prepared to be called “old” by a teenager. But, maybe she had a point. I remember how excited I was to receive my college email address because it meant that I could finally sign up for Facebook, a social networking site that was initially created for college students to connect. With my Facebook account I was able to find out who else was living in my dorm, who I had classes with, and make friends within my cohort before even stepping foot on campus. In the years since it started, Facebook has evolved into a much different site. No longer exclusive to college students, even my 83 year old grandma has a Facebook account, allowing her to brag and boast about her grandchildren’s accomplishments. In fact, opening Facebook up to non-college students created a virtual brag-board; users can learn about their friends who just closed on a house or a cousin who recently received a job promotion. They can see who lost weight, who reached their goals, and who thrives in their life. Although some people do post about the tragedies in their lives, Facebook does provide the opportunity to allow others to see only what you want them to see, which is most often a positively skewed version of life. Despite most of us recognizing this trend, we continue to log into Facebook and submit ourselves to countless posts of friends and family bragging about how wonderful their lives (apparently) are. Since its inception in 2004, people have speculated how Facebook might change not only the way we interact and relate to one another, but how it might impact the way that we feel. Not long after the social media boom of the early 2000s, many people noticed having negative feelings after using Facebook. Anecdotal reports of depression and anxiety connected to social media use surfaced and researchers set out to uncover the reasons why. Over nearly two decades of research, a striking pattern emerged: people did feel more depressive symptoms after using Facebook, but only when their Facebook experience first made them feel envious. That is, people who went on Facebook and felt envy toward their friends, either desiring what they had or believing their friends were happier or more successful, reported feeling depressive symptoms. Those who did not feel envy while using Facebook did not experience this depression. The research on social media has come a long way over the years and has recently begun to include networking apps such as Instagram. Researchers are still learning about the nuanced effects that social media use has on people’s emotional well-being. But a few gaps still exist in the research on Facebook; virtually no studies examined authentic Facebook newsfeeds, as most opted to create mock posts for participants, and very few studies examine the possible benefits of Facebook use. One recent study addresses these gaps and sheds light on how Facebook use may not impact everyone the same way. As one of the first studies to utilize a controlled, experimental method with participants’ own Facebook accounts, my study focused on the experiences of both malicious and benign envy while using Facebook. Malicious envy is the more traditional view of envy; it is the desire to want what another person has. Malicious envy is a deleterious experience also characterized by frustration and motivates individuals to not better themselves, but to hinder or put down the object of envy. Benign envy is the experience of admiring another person, even though one desires what that other person has accomplished and may feel inferior or frustrated. Benign envy motivates “leveling up,” or improving oneself be closer to the object of envy. Experiences of benign envy have largely been ignored by research on Facebook, and so my study provided a richer snapshot of participants’ Facebook experience. Six hundred and seventy five participants, ranging from 18 to 79 years of age and across educational backgrounds and ethnicities, completed surveys of their personality traits, positive and negative emotions, state self-esteem, and feelings of benign and malicious envy. They then logged into their Facebook accounts and spent several minutes looking through their newsfeed, which is a list of updates from their Facebook friends. Participants described viewing posts relating to life goals such as vacations, life milestones, weight loss, and careers, as well as politically driven posts and funny pictures. After spending time viewing their Facebook newsfeed, they completed surveys of positive and negative emotions, state self-esteem, and benign and malicious envy. Regardless of what participants viewed on Facebook, their reports of both positive and negative emotions decreased, indicating a report of feeling fewer emotions at the end of the study than when they began. This may suggest a numbing effect of Facebook, or users possibly detaching emotionally after using the social networking site. When it comes to feelings of envy, participants reported feeling more malicious envy over the course of the study, no matter what they saw on their Facebook newsfeed. Interestingly, when I explored the results for men and women separately, clear differences emerged. Men reported feeling more benign envy than women, that positive and motivating experience of envy, while women reported feeling more malicious envy than men. More research is needed to help understand these reported differences in how men and women experience envy when looking at others’ posts on Facebook, though the results of this study suggest that women experience more negative envy when engaged with Facebook than their male counterparts. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, it is my job to help my clients gain insight into the challenges in their lives, find strengths and resources to cope with these challenges, and ultimately find ways to improve their emotional well-being. My study sheds light on the way Facebook may help or hinder these goals outside of the therapy room. Emotional numbing can be a dangerous coping skill, stifling our feelings and pushing them away rather than dealing with them. Women may be more susceptible to the negative impact of envy than their male counterparts. This information can be invaluable for adults wishing to change their habits, as well as for parents who are concerned with their children’s use of social media. Even if Facebook is for us old folks, the latest app is bound to have its own effects on users and knowing how it may impact us can help prevent deleterious effects.

Originally published by Rose LaPiere, LPC, RPT-S, ACS, November 2018

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