Does Facebook make us unhappy?

Social psychologist Ethan Kross thinks it might.

In a recent study at the University of Michigan, Kross and his colleagues recruited 82 young adults (the average age was about 19-1/2) in the Ann Arbor area to see why they used Facebook and how its use related to their mood throughout the day over a period of two weeks (here are links to the actual online article, as well as to a summary review in the Los Angeles Times).  Participants were texted 5 times a day to get quick measures of how they felt, how worried or lonely they were, and how much they had used Facebook or interacted with people directly since the last text.  Before and after the 14-day period, the researchers also measured such things as life satisfaction, depression, and self-esteem.

The result?  After carefully analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that the more people used FB:

  • the worse they reported feeling the next time they were texted;
  • the more their life satisfaction went down over time.

Is it because people go to FB when they feel lonely?  On the one hand, lonelier participants did use FB more.  But on the other hand, when the researchers accounted for the role of loneliness, FB use still seemed to cause a decline in well-being.  By contrast, participants who reported more direct social interaction (face-to-face or by phone) felt better, not worse.

Kross and his colleagues recognize that the study raises more questions than it answers.  Would the same results hold for a different age group, or for users of some other social network?  And even if they did, do we really know why FB use might affect us this way?  It’s been suggested, for example, that the results could be explained by social comparison.  Looking at someone else’s timeline could tempt us to think: Wow, your life looks so much more interesting/fun/successful than mine.  I must be a loser.  But not everyone uses FB in the same way or for the same reasons.  More research is needed to begin to fit the puzzle together with any degree of confidence.

Meanwhile, the larger issue is how the technologies we take for granted have unintended consequences on our lives, particularly with respect to our community of relationships.  Historians have argued, for example, that the invention of the microwave oven has undermined both the family rituals of meal preparation and the expectation that families would eat together.  The invention of air conditioning, similarly, eroded neighborhood unity by drawing people indoors, away from the porches and sidewalks where friendly conversations happened in the cool of the evening.

We love our technology; we come to depend on it.  But we aren’t always aware of the ways in which it reshapes our lives.  I remember an old Far Side cartoon depicting a family in their living room, staring together at a blank wall.  The caption: “In the days before television.”  Larson gets it just right: it’s not as if the introduction of television simply gave families something more interesting to stare at.  It changed how families spend time together.

In the academic world of social psychological research, one well-established fact seems incontestable: human happiness and well-being depend in large part on having rich and rewarding relationships.  Christians can add that this is the way God created us, and that part of the divine work of redemption is demonstrated in communities of love, compassion, and reconciliation.  We can use Facebook as a tool to enrich the relationships we already have, but it’s no substitute for real conversation.

So now that you’re finished reading this post, why not go talk to somebody?