The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When Facebook friends become depressing

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2014. Thanks to him, we may be comparing ourselves to others, coming up short, and feeling bad, a new study says. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

A few minutes browsing Facebook can be a welcome distraction for knowledge workers dog tired after punching their keyboards all morning. But what seems like a mental break can also be an opportunity for devastating self-analysis: Are my Facebook friends’ boyfriends more beautiful than my boyfriend? Are my Facebook friends’ children more beautiful than my child? Are my Facebook friends’ lives better than mine?

Those familiar with this paralyzing spiral of doubt and shame, take comfort: It’s not just you. New research has drawn a line between logging into Facebook and symptoms of depression.

“The more time you spend on Facebook, the more likely it is for you to feel depressive symptoms,” said Mai-Ly Steers, lead author of the study “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “… The underlying mechanism is social comparison. So essentially the reason you feel these feelings is that you tend to socially compare yourself to your friends.”

[How the Internet makes you think you’re smarter than you really are]

[Smartphones replace thinking, study finds]

For the paper, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Steers and her co-authors completed two experiments with more than 100 subjects designed to measure their Facebook usage, depressive symptoms and tendency to compare themselves with others. Subjects completed questionnaires and/or kept diaries, self-reporting their behavior and states of mind.

The findings offered a cascade of bad news for Mark Zuckerberg enthusiasts.

“Overall results revealed that spending a great deal of time on Facebook (or viewing Facebook more frequently) is positively related to comparing one’s self to others,” the study read, “which in turn is associated with increased depressive symptoms.”

Steers, a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Houston, was clear: The study does not say that Facebook causes depression. It just means that those who spend a lot of times “liking” others’ photos and idle observations might not like themselves.

“It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand,” she said in a statement.

Steers said she got the idea for the study when her little sister wasn’t invited to a school dance. Like any technically literate youth left out of a social occasion, she logged on to Facebook to see what she was missing — and regretted it.

“She saw friends posting pictures from the dance and  felt really bad — probably worse,” Steers said. “… She was gathering info about the dance that she wouldn’t even have known about. I began to think this is probably a common occurrence.”

Steers also said that Facebook posts — where people crow about a new job or new beau, but don’t necessarily offer blow-by-blow accounts of their daily cry about how life has gone wrong — offer a twisted picture of reality.

“Often on Facebook, people tend to self-present,” Steers said. “They put themselves in the best light possible. … If you’re looking at your friends’ highlight reels, you might feel you don’t measure up, but that is a very distorted view.”

Asked what can be done — and whether Facebook is good or bad — Steers demurred. Referring to a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that tops her study — “Comparison is the thief of joy” — she said social media’s worth depends on what we do with it.

“I don’t think any kind of technology is inherent good or bad,” Steers said. “Its effects depend on how we use it. 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.”