It's now beyond dispute: Too much Facebook is bad for your emotional health. Study after study has found a direct link between heavy use of Facebook and deepening unhappiness. That could be because of the human tendency to compare ourselves to people who appear to be leading happier lives than we are. Or it could be that maintaining our Facebook friendships leaves us with less time or inclination for interactions in the real world. Whatever the reason, the effect is clear.
But the vast majority of those studies took place before the 2016 election cycle. However bad things were before this past political season, now they're much, much worse. Bad enough that it may actually be driving some people away from Facebook. I can't prove the connection between politics and what may be a temporary or long-term decline in Facebook use. I can tell you I've had several conversations lately where someone told me they were spending much less time on Facebook because they were sick of all the political ranting.
I don't blame them. I'm sick of it too. My friends, on Facebook and elsewhere, tend toward the left side of the political line and most of them are not supporters of President Donald Trump. So on any given day, I can count on my Facebook feed containing a number of furious posts about the latest outrageous statement or act by the president or one of his advisors. I do have a few friends, though, from the other side of the political fence, and their posts are all furious responses to how the media and the liberal opposition has responded to those statements or acts. I so wish I could blow a great big sports whistle and tell everyone to take a time out.
I believe spending a great deal of time on Facebook is even more deleterious to your emotional health than it was before the election. As Facebook itself proved in a highly controversial experiment, emotions are contagious on social networks, and a stream of disproportionately positive or negative quotes can make you feel more glum or more cheery than you otherwise would. These days, politics make up a large proportion of Facebook posts, and those posts are disproportionately negative. If you're a heavy Facebook user, you can't help but be affected.
If you love Facebook, as so many people do, what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions, based on the research:
1. Try to interact mostly with people you also interact with in the real world.
Facebook's negative mood effects seem to be more pronounced when people spend the bulk of their time talking to Facebook friends they have never met in person, or only know slightly. Psychologists conjecture that this is because when we don't know someone well, we imagine their life to be better than it is and feel bad about ourselves in comparison. I think there's a simpler explanation: When we use Facebook to follow the doings of strangers or almost-strangers, there's little in the way of an emotional connection. When we use it to stay up on what's happening to people we truly care about, we feel happy too when they share good news. And if it's bad news, we're likely to pick up the phone or send a Messenger message asking how we can help, which increases connection as well.
2. Interact with people, don't just read through posts passively.
I'm often guilty of this myself. But the research shows the more we interact with people, responding to their posts or commenting on new profile photos, the better it is for our mood. Again, I suspect the explanation is connection--if I respond to you in some way (even if it's to say you're a jerk), I'm creating some sort of human interaction between us, not just reading your latest doings in isolation.
3. Start conversations.
I'm not sure whether researchers have studied the difference between merely responding to someone else's status update or creating one of your own. But I can tell you that starting a conversation on a topic of your choice is way more satisfying than just chiming in on discussions started by others. Besides, if you're as sick of politics on Facebook as I am, starting a conversation gives you the chance to steer the discussion in a different direction.
4. Be real.
If you believe that every update you post to Facebook had to sound upbeat and underscore your success at your job, as a parent, a spouse, a chef, and so on, then Facebook is likelier to be bad for your emotional health. One study found that people who share their problems on social media feel more supported and less isolated than those who only shared the ideal version of themselves. They were also more likely to have social media contribute to their well-being.
5. Get some news sources other than Facebook.
Surveys have shown most Americans now get most of their news through Facebook and it's easy to see why. Most of us are quicker to click on those irresistibly adorable or infuriating stories or videos our friends post than we are to go visit news sites, or pick up a newspaper, or turn on the evening news.
But there are a couple of dangers here. First, since Facebook goes out of its way to feed us news it thinks we'll like, we wind up with a very skewed view of the world. Second, the mood of the news that gets posted to our Facebook feeds can affect our own mood, as Facebook's experiment proved. (A third danger is that Facebook may experiment on you some more, if you mind that sort of thing.)
6. Take a break.
If you use Facebook a lot, then using it a little less, even temporarily, is likely to lift your mood. In one Danish study, more than 1,000 people who quit using Facebook for a week, there were significant improvements in their mood and concentration. Even if you don't go that far, putting yourself on a temporary Facebook diet, where you limit or reduce your time on the social network every day can have a positive effect.
What do you think? Does Facebook make you happy or unhappy?