“Facebook is bad for you: Get a life!”
So screams the headline on an Economist article, describing new research exploring the emotional effects of using social media. In the first study of its kind, young adults were asked to complete questionnaires indicating their social interactions and their level of satisfaction in life, five times a day for two weeks. In summary, “The more someone uses Facebook, the less satisfied he is with life.” The study found that the more the study’s participants used Facebook between one questionnaire and the next, the more people were unsatisfied with their lives. It also established a contrasting principle: The more people interacted with others in the real, physical world, the better they felt.
The study did not explore the reasons for the decline in satisfaction associated with using Facebook. But the Economist article speculates at a partial explanation: envy. It cites another study, which found that envy was the most frequent emotional reaction to time spent on Facebook.
It makes perfect sense. On Facebook we find the best, most positive portrayals of one another. Flattering photos, witty comments, happy celebrations, and public displays of affection can convince us that everyone else is living the kind of life we want but can’t reach. Even self-deprecating comments are carefully constructed and presented playfully, pictures of personal hardship intentionally framed.
Should it be different? Perhaps not. Imagine the alternative: endless streams of complaints, sorrows, frustrations, and fighting words. For people who have hundreds or thousands of “friends,” such intimate and needy sharing is hardly appropriate. For most of us, such a carnival of negativity would drive us away pretty quickly. As unnatural as a constant stream of levity might be, a global pity party is even more so. For the good of all, we can strive to make our public selves more authentic. But I’m not sure the antidote to Facebook’s downside is on Facebook. I think it’s in face-to-face, voice-to-voice interaction.
Envy is incredibly destructive. It’s the source behind so much discontentment, consumerism, greed, self-loathing, obsession, and spite. We need real-world interaction to see others as they really are and to realize the pain that sometimes accompanies the very pleasures we’re tempted to covet. We need to help one another see through the lies we tell ourselves, redefining what’s really going on. We need to go through the exercise of seeing and accepting others’ faults as well as their fortunes, and seeing those faults can help us make peace not only with our own shortcomings, but with our blessings as well.
But I believe there are additional reasons social networking depresses us–among them, our need to be known. When we interact with others through the idealized portraits we paint of ourselves, and when they envy us for the happiness or artfully decorated sadness we have chosen to show them, we are not blessed with true friendship. We are robbed of the chance to be known and loved and challenged without artifice or image management. When we feel that others like us only as the person we have constructed in a virtual world, we can’t feel truly liked or likable. And even worse, when we believe this virtual self is all that is true about us, we lose definition on our own.
Social media are about as fleeting as the railroad, the telephone, and sliced bread. This virtual world is now as real as the world that existed without it. Widespread human presence makes it real, and literacy in it is required for well-rounded knowledge of our world and its people. But it is no replacement for old-fashioned physical presence, the sound of a voice that says so much more than mere words. Sometimes, for the good of ourselves and the people who need us, let’s walk away from the digital world and turn to face one another. In our enthusiasm for tech, let’s not lose touch.