A lot of interesting studies on the psychological/social/emotional impact of Facebook have come out lately. I think I intuitively suspected some of what the studies have revealed, but it is still fascinating to see it empirically quantified. Bad or good, Facebook (used here as synonymous with all social networking generally) has completely, fundamentally, and permanently changed the way we interact. Is that good or bad? And if bad, then what?
One of these studies comes out of Stanford. This particular study focused on how students evaluate moods, both their own and those of their peers. The study revealed that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were, and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. So what does that have to do with Facebook? Well, the study revealed that people seemed to feel particularly bad after logging onto the site “and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates.” “They were,” the study found, “convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.”
Is that true? Do people really do that?
As one article, Libby Copeland’s “The Anti-Social Network” on www.slate.com, pointed out, the human habit of overestimating other people’s happiness is nothing new. Quoting Montesquieu, the article proclaims: “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”
And apparently Facebook is making this worse. Continuing, the article recognized that, “[b]y showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature.”
Many of the studies and related articles I have reviewed have focused on a virtual “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon that Facebook apparently inspires. One reference comes from a kid named Jake Reilly and an article on Yahoo! News about his 90-day so-called “Amish Project” wherein he went 90 days without a cell phone, email, or any social media. Reilly said:
Yeah, for sure. I think that Facebook is the biggest waste of time, because everyone is just presenting such a filtered picture of themselves. You only put up your best pictures. People only check in when they are at the fanciest restaurant in the city. They only keep things up there that are flattering to themselves. I just think it’s like keeping up with the Joneses, but for life. You’re never going to get on top of it. Someone’s always going to have a better job than you, go on better vacations than you, have a better looking wife than you, or whatever it is. So, it’s superficiality on top of superficiality. You never get to see the real parts of people.
One of the most profound (for me) points made was back in Copeland’s article, and focused on parenting. She said:
Any parent who has posted photos and videos of her child on Facebook is keenly aware of the resulting disconnect from reality, the way chronicling parenthood this way creates a story line of delightfully misspoken words, adorably worn hats, dancing, blown kisses. Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of pure, mind-blowing tedium. We protect ourselves, and our kids, this way; happiness is impersonal in a way that pain is not. But in the process, we wind up contributing to the illusion that kids are all joy, no effort.
I can definitely identify with what she is saying there.
I do feel, though, that I have kind of accounted for this all along. Of course people only post their best pictures. Of course most people only report the cool and fun and happy things they are doing. Just because everyone looks great in their pictures or only reports going to killer concerts or on awesome vacations doesn’t mean their lives are perfect.
More sad to me are the mundane posts that seem like so many desperate cries for help, for attention. Posts about sick kids or cereal preferences or feeling tired or, more candidly, flat out admitting to being alone/sad/depressed. What is most interesting/disturbing to me is the suggestion that Facebook and the easy “connection” that it seems to provide could, in reality, not only not be alleviating these feelings, but could actually be causing them.
It’s lonely on Facebook. And a poor substitute for actual, quality interaction. Who hasn’t posted something they thought was interesting or cute or funny and been met with a massive wall of cyber silence? If you shared that with someone in person and they responded that way, that would be rude and unacceptable. But by “sharing” on these social networks, you are, in effect, offering it to everyone and no one. No one feels compelled to respond because you have sent it to 247 other people.
I miss letters. Like actual letters. E-mail is nice, and a thoughtful e-mail, with it’s delightful corresponding “(1)” in your “Inbox,” is a similar feeling. But only a small fraction of the joy that comes from an actual, thought out, handwritten letter. Nothing truly compares.
I miss phone calls.
Most of all, I miss quality, face-to-face interaction.
Does anyone else feel this way? Is it my age? Is it my lack of techno savvy? Is it too ironic to post this article on a blog, with a link on Facebook?
And if Facebook/social networking is really bringing us down, what are we going to do about it? Are we willing to unplug?