Facebook is the many-headed frenemy, the great underminer. We know this because science tells us so. The Human-Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon has found that “passive consumption” of friends’ feeds and your own “broadcasts to wider audiences” on Facebook correlate with feelings of loneliness and even depression.
Earlier this year, two German universities showed that “passive following” on Facebook triggers states of envy and resentment in many users, with vacation photos standing out as a prime trigger. Yet another study, this one of 425 undergrads in Utah, carried the self-explanatory title “ ‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives Than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives.” Even the positive effects of Facebook can be double-edged: Viewing your profile can increase your self-esteem, but it also lowers your ability to ace an arithmetic task.
All of these studies are careful to point out that it’s not Facebook per se that inspires states of disconnection, jealousy and poor mathematical performance – rather, it’s specific uses of Facebook. If you primarily use Facebook to share interesting news articles with colleagues, exchange messages with new acquaintances and play Candy Crush Saga, chances are the green-eyed monster won’t ask to friend you. But if the hours you log on Facebook are largely about creeping through other people’s posts – especially their photos and especially-especially their vacation snaps – with an occasional pause to update your own status and slap on a grudging “like” here or there, then science confirms that you need to break the cycle.
But Facebook is not the frenemy with the most heads. That title, in fact, goes to Instagram. Here’s why.
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Instagram distills the most crazy-making aspects of the Facebook experience.
So far, academic studies of Instagram’s effects on our emotional states are scarce. But it’s tempting to extrapolate those effects from the Facebook studies, because out of the many activities Facebook offers, the three things that correlate most strongly with a self-loathing screen hangover are basically the three things that Instagram is currently used for: loitering around others’ photos, perfunctory likes and “broadcasting” to a relatively amorphous group.
Viewers get more cues of “people being happy, rich and successful from a photo than from a status update,” said Hanna Krasnova of Humboldt University Berlin, co-author of the study on Facebook and envy. “A photo can very powerfully provoke immediate social comparison, and that can trigger feelings of inferiority. You don’t envy a news story.”
Krasnova’s research has led her to define what she calls an “envy spiral” peculiar to social media. “If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram,” she said, “one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.”
Photographs are probably the biggest driver of self-esteem effects, said Catalina Toma of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“You spend so much time creating flattering, idealized images of yourself, sorting through hundreds of images for that one perfect picture, but you don’t necessarily grasp that everybody else is spending a lot of time doing the same thing,” Toma said. Then, after spending lots of time carefully curating and filtering your images, you spend even more time staring at other people’s carefully curated and filtered images that you assume they didn’t spend much time on. And the more you do that, Toma said, “the more distorted your perception is that their lives are happier and more meaningful than yours.”