So, we’ve known for a while that Facebook makes people more depressed. The researchers back in 2013 controlled for pre-existing loneliness and were pretty confident that they were finding cause and effect, and not just that depressed people spend more time surfing Facebook.
A just-published study on social networking tested one hypothesis for why. Social networks make us more jealous. We especially get jealous when looking at travel photos, apparently, but the whole daily spin on Facebook contributes to the problem in a vicious cycle: we feel insecure, so we post pictures of ourselves at our best (smiling, with our fabulous new significant other, eating delicious food…) which sets off jealousy and insecurity in others, who respond by posting pictures of their peak moments, which makes us jealous, and so on.
Apparently teenagers are more susceptible to jealousy and its negative effects: one of the many benefits of aging is that we can look at our friends’ beach photos in February with less resentment. There is some speculation that this is why teenagers are using Facebook less and less. They are indeed using Facebook less but they’re using Instagram more; it’s hard to believe that vacation photos wouldn’t inspire just as much jealousy on Instagram, though I don’t think that’s actually been formally studied yet.
Studies on jealousy and mood have a rich history, beginning well before the 1980s – predating Facebook. In the decades before we could track everyone on Facebook, a lot of us kept up with our friends by way of Christmas letters, which were notorious for being eye-roll-inducing brag sheets. (“Amanda is so excited to be graduating summa cum laude from Stanford! The cancer research keeps Betty busy but she made time to join the rest of the family in Martinique for our beach trip!” etc.) The advantage of those letters was that you probably knew as you were opening the envelope what it was likely to contain, and if you just wanted the photo card, you could toss the rest unopened. It wasn’t going to ambush you on a daily basis like Facebook does.
So what I’m really curious about (and could find no studies on) — if hearing about our friends’ vacations makes us miserable, does hearing about their misfortune improve our moods any? Also, there are parts of the world where people believe that inducing jealousy in others could cause them to accidentally cast the evil eye on you; does that affect how people use Facebook? What should we be sharing on Facebook if we want to connect with our friends? Does humblebragging (as opposed to the regular sort of bragging) make this problem better or worse?
Also, who are these people who have feeds full of vacation pictures? I’ll tell you what I find depressing in my Facebook feed: yet another mass shooting, yet another unarmed black person who got killed by a police officer, yet another picture of Donald Trump, yet another flame war about anything at all. When I see pictures of my friends cavorting on a beach looking happy, I honestly feel happy for them. What I want in my Facebook feed is more food for envy and less for outrage. Or failing that, cute pictures of people’s pets are always fine. Maybe I should make like a teenager and switch to Instagram.
Originally published Dec. 2015