Social media has changed the way people interact. We can now remain in constant contact with hundreds of so-called friends, even ones we rarely see in person.
The impact of social media on society has prompted researchers to investigate whether its effect is positive or negative. The findings are mixed, showing both benefits and downsides to the use of social media sites. One area of focus in these studies is the effect of social media on mental health.
Recent research has shown that using social networking sites, namely Facebook, can increase people’s stress levels, produce anxiety and negatively affect a person’s sense of self. Using these sites might even cause a person to develop a mental health disorder or exacerbate an existing one. Social media even has the power to quickly spread moods around the world.
Social media sites provide places where people can create the face they want the world to see. Creating a profile allows a person to decide exactly what image to present to others. For some people, this can lead to a near-obsession. This could reflect a person’s self-esteem, according to one study.
This study looked into the association between a person’s self-esteem and how much time he or she spent on maintaining his or her profile, specifically what actions they performed to create their online persona. Those with lower self-esteem cared more about what others had posted about them on Facebook and were more likely to remove certain posts to ensure their profile remained a reflection of the image they wanted to portray. They might even scour Facebook and other networking sites to ensure that there are no negative remarks or unflattering photos. Conversely, those with high self-esteem spend time creating their own profile, adding pictures and information about themselves to show the world their ultimate persona.
Another study showed that Facebook increases people’s anxiety levels by making them feel inadequate and generating excess worry and stress. Social media provides constant updates. This motivates many people to continually check their status and newsfeed on mobile devices. Some people feel a constant impulse to check for updates, only feeling relief when they turn off the mobile device. In this study, over half of the respondents felt uneasy when they were unable to access their social media and email accounts.
Additionally, two-thirds had difficulty sleeping due to anxiety and other negative emotions after they had used the sites. The constant updates also led many respondents to frequently compare themselves to others, leading to feelings of inadequacy. This anxiety and worry creates chronic stress that could lead to health problems, including mental health issues.
Facebook also can increase the amount of social anxiety a person has upon meeting someone for the first time, according to another recent study. Prior to this study, experts hypothesized that for those with social anxiety, looking at a person’s Facebook or other social media profile prior to meeting could help alleviate some of their feelings of nervousness. Reviewing someone’s social media profile is a way to get to know someone prior to meeting them. Other studies have shown that people with social anxiety prefer communicating with people via the Internet rather than in person, so it would seem as though it would be an ideal way to initiate relationships.
A team of researchers performed an experiment to see whether reviewing a person’s Facebook profile before picking a person out of a picture would decrease anxiety levels. The researchers looked at the social anxiety levels of 26 female students between the ages of 18 and 20 using the Interaction Anxiousness Scale (IAS).
The participants had to interact with another student in one of four randomly assigned conditions while their skin response (which shows the body’s psychological arousal) was measured by electrodes on their ring and index finger. The conditions included Facebook only (memorizing student’s face from the profile page only), face-to-face only (a participant studied the student’s face in the same room), face-to-face and Facebook (study the Facebook photos and then meeting the person), and in person to Facebook (meeting a person face-to-face and then having to find their picture on Facebook). After being introduced to the other person, in one of these four manners they had to identify and circle the student in four different group pictures.
The researchers found that the participants who were first exposed to another student via Facebook and then had to meet them in person had increased psychological arousal, which means that they were more anxious. The researchers are not completely sure why this might be the case. They postulate that this might be due to the participants making comparisons between the other students and themselves when reviewing the Facebook profile. The participants may also have felt safer at first, but then became nervous knowing they had to meet the person in real life because there was already a basis of knowledge about the person.
The study was limited, as it did not reflect real-world situations and only included encounters with the same sex. Therefore, more study is needed.
Facebook also has the power to affect one’s mood and even spread that mood globally, according to a recent study. Researchers focused on weather patterns and their effect on a person’s mood. They found that when it rained in one location, making people feel gloomier and subsequently posting negative comments, it caused an increase in bad moods of people who were friends with those people on Facebook but lived farther away, in places where it was not raining.
Likewise, people whose friends posted cheery status updates tended also to have a more positive mood, at least reflected by their status posts. The researchers found that for every negative post, there were an extra 1.29 negative posts than normal in that person’s social network. Happy posts had an even stronger effect, with every upbeat statement causing an extra 1.75 positive posts in the social network. It should be noted some of these researchers were Facebook employees.
Another study found that Facebook actually can make people miserable. Researchers for this study looked at 82 young, frequent Facebook users, 53 female and 29 males. They were sent text messages with links to an online survey that asked how they felt, whether they were worried, if they felt lonely, how often they have used Facebook, and how often they interacted directly with people.
The researchers found that when the participants increased their Facebook use, their state of well-being declined, while those who increased the amount of time they spent with people face to face had an increased sense of well-being. There was no indication that people used Facebook more when they already felt depressed or that there was a link between loneliness and Facebook; these were both independent predictors.
These are just a sampling of the studies on the negative effects of social media sites on users. Although they can cause problems, these sites also have been shown to have positive effects on people. It can help psychologists monitor the mental health of patients, spread awareness about issues (including mental health disorders), connect people with one another, and make the world a little smaller.
Although there are many benefits, it is important to remember the possible downsides of social media sites and their use in order to help people who are vulnerable to mental health problems, such as anxiety disorder or depression, to not develop or exacerbate existing problems due to use. The best way for anyone to take advantage of the benefits of these sites while minimizing the downsides is to moderate his or her use and maintain a level of detachment.
This article first appeared on PsychCentral on 4 August 2014.