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I’m depressed that studies prove Facebook makes us depressed

machine learning depression mri scans studies facebook user
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Yes, of course it does! There’s a crash of splintering of wood, a smack of branches on the way down, the splash of leaves, and finally, the deep thump of it hitting the earth. Those are all sounds! Everything’s not about you and what you do and don’t hear!

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get worked up like that. It’s just that this question, which melts the brain of small children and small-minded adults, is stuck in my head like that “Blurred Lines” song, as I reflect on a new scientific study from the University of Michigan.

No, the study is not about trees or forests. It’s about Facebook. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s this little website created by the kid from Zombieland. The study determines that the more someone uses Facebook, the sadder they are. “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it,” said the researchers.

Imagine trying to make an objective assessment of your Facebook friends based on their online profiles. 

I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with trees? Well, nothing really. The question just struck me as an example of how self absorbed people can be, and maybe why they feel it’s necessary to share every little positive detail about their lives across social media. “Wow, the sunset against the Pacific Ocean is beautiful. Let me post it so 300 people can see it.” “My daughter looks so adorable sleeping next to the dog. Share …” “This chili tastes pretty good. #beansbeansgoodfortheheart” Don’t you find it exhausting to quantify life’s moments – big or small – based on engagement levels? Well, it’s what Facebook has turned into, and now we have research that proves how empty it is.

The study tracked participants for two weeks, asking them questions apparently written by a committee of Jewish mothers, focusing on how worried or lonely the participants were at the moment, how much they had used Facebook since the last survey, and if they had heard that so and so was married and/or recently became a doctor. Okay, I made up that last part, but still. What a bunch of yentas, right?

When Facebook initially took the World Wide Web by storm, it seemed that everyone joined with the purpose of reconnecting with old flames and friends. It was an incredibly effective tool to keep in touch with the people in our lives who, due to geography or apathy or just time, we had or were likely going to lose track of. It was community building, and it felt good to keep a lot of these people in our lives.

But, for the most part, the communities have been built. We’re not reconnecting anymore; we’re fully connected. So what do we do when we’re no longer looking for people from the past? We apparently want prove to them how far we’ve come.

Admit it, people: we’re only putting our best selves online. I’m not pointing fingers – I’m as guilty as anyone.

Facebook use predicts declines in affect and life satisfaction over time.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Imagine trying to make an objective assessment of your Facebook friends based on their online profiles. Everyone you know would appear to be living a life of nothing but beautiful vacations, four-star dinners, and professional success. According to the study, “More than three-quarters said they shared good things with their communities on the site, while 36 percent said they would share bad things on Facebook as well.” In other words, 36 percent of the study’s respondents are lying.

But maybe Facebook isn’t the cause of the “sadness” reflected in the study. Maybe we go on Facebook when we’re feeling sad already. It’s like a blues song. We put it on to swim in our melancholy. In fact, researchers did find people spent more time on Facebook when they were feeling lonely, and it defines loneliness as something distinctively different than actually being alone.

“Would engaging in any solitary activity similarly predict declines in well-being? We suspect that they would not because people often derive pleasure from engaging in some solitary activities (e.g., exercising, reading),” the report said. “Supporting this view, a number of recent studies indicate that people’s perceptions of social isolation (i.e. how lonely they feel) are a more powerful determinant of well-being than objective social isolation.”

Don’t you find it exhausting to quantify life’s moments – big or small – based on engagement levels?

The study calls this theory “FOMO” or “Fear Of Missing Out,” a side effect of seeing friends and family sitting on beaches or having fun at parties while you are at work or waiting in line at the DMV. I call it the “Online High School Reunion Principal,” or “OHSRP,” which states that the anxiety of wanting to be one of the “cool kids” never really leaves you – especially when you’re surrounded by all those same high school friends on Facebook.

Whether using Facebook makes us sad or Facebook is just a place we go to wallow in sadness, I think I have a solution: Let’s get real.

If you’re going to post a picture of a meal at a Michelin-rated restaurant tonight, you should post a picture of the bowl of Special K you ate for dinner last night, too. For every post about the beach you vacationed on, post seven things about the couch where you normally spend your evenings. And don’t just declare your undying love for your BFFs; let’s hear some of the petty nonsense you’ve been bickering about, too. Let’s use Facebook, and other social media platforms, honestly.

And the next time you do find yourself on line at the DMV, and you scroll through your Facebook timeline to see a photo of your ex-girlfriend with her strapping, successful husband doing something way more fabulous than spending the next 90 minutes waiting to pay for your delinquent parking tickets so you can renew your vehicle registration, do not feel sad. Think about how she actually thought it was more important that you know how happy she is than it was for her to actually just be happy with him. That’s not sad, it’s depressing.

Plus, if you want to post a photo of the line at the DMV, go ahead. It wouldn’t hurt to see some real life up there either. And I promise I’ll “Like” it.

Top image courtesy of Catalin Petolea/Shutterstock

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Peter Soldinger
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Peter Soldinger is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter for film and television with a passion for sports and a contentious…
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