The week of May 3, 2015

How Facebook is changing the way we think and feel

By Leslie Anne Jones

In 1996, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University began a study of the effects Internet usage on psychological well-being and social involvement. Home Internet use was just becoming prevalent enough to warrant such a study, and multiuser dungeons (MUDs) were still a common enough place for online socializing to be listed in the opening paragraphs of the published results.

They called their findings the “Internet Paradox,” reporting that although the Internet was a social technology, greater usage diminished family communication and amplified a person’s loneliness—a foreboding preview of what the rapid scaling of domestic Internet might do to us.

In the nearly two decades following, the study has been criticized for its small sample size and thin assertion of causation where there was perhaps only correlation. A similar problem plagued studies of television, by then a much more familiar medium: Does watching television make people lonely, or do people watch television because they already are lonely?

Nevertheless, the “HomeNet Study” of the ’90s still resonates with much of the way we talk about Internet usage. MUDs are mostly abandoned now, and although there are myriad ways people socialize online, Facebook is for now, and by a wide margin, the world’s largest social network. Hardly a week goes by that you can’t find a new article about how it makes us unhappy, lonely, narcissistic, jealous, or sad. Our culture is pervaded by a sense that for everything we’ve gained, something has been—is being—lost.

Much of today’s research, however, faces the same problems of causation and correlation. Technology and its usage have changed so quickly, it’s hard to pin conclusions on a moving target, and then there’s the trickiness of the research itself. Without a researcher peering over our shoulder every waking second, it’s near impossible to say how much self-editing factors into reported versus actual usage.

Our culture is pervaded by a sense that for everything we’ve gained, something has been—is being—lost.

Today, some of the most groundbreaking work doesn’t draw firm conclusions but rather calls on researchers to rethink the way they frame their inquiries. By nature, studying the so-called Facebook Self requires an interdisciplinary approach. It is still early days in understanding how the social network makes us feel, how it affects our relationships—and our relationship to the past—and how it influences the construction of our identities, online and off.


Facebook depression

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 16 million American adults suffered a major depressive episode in 2012, which is almost 7 percent of the population—so whether Facebook causes or augments depression is a worthy question. That Facebook and depression are linked is the conclusion drawn by a raft of recent studies, but why and to what extent is less clear. Anecdotal and scientific evidence points to Facebook’s facilitation of social comparison, not just to our friends’ lives but to a curated and positively skewed representation of them. To understand why exactly this gets us down though, it may be useful to look to the evolutionary causes of depression.

Charlotte Blease, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University College Dublin. To explain her research, she borrows an analogy from University of Pennsylvania psychologist Robert Kurzban: The mind is like an iPhone. Its “apps” are program-specific processes that evolved based on our ancestral environment. Our minds have apps for mating behavior, predation-avoidance, kin selection, and so on.

“If we were transported back to the Stone Age, we’d still have all the right instincts,” Blease said. “We’d have all the right faculties to respond to the problems presented in that environment, but in the modern world we’re more likely to get knocked over. What’s modern is in our environment, not our minds.”

There are competing theories on the evolutionary causes of depression, especially major depression; scientists aren’t very clear if things like suicidal thoughts are aberrant brain activity or if there’s an evolved function to them. There’s substantially more consensus on theories related to mild depression.

“It is likely that there is a function for depression—or certainly for sadness and mild depression,” Blease said.

One theory, known as the analytical rumination hypothesis, posits that depression evolved as a problem-solving strategy, allowing the depressed person to “focus our attention on socially complex problems,” Blease said.

Another theory is the “social competition theory,” which is the idea that we’ve evolved an automatic, involuntary depressive response for when we observe that others are out-competing us. In premodern times, the function of this was perhaps to help avoid bodily harm meted out by dominant members of the community.

It may be that spending too much time immersed in pictures and status updates leaves us with the impression we are being socially out-competed.

“A sort of intuitive response that says, ‘I’m no threat! You win!’” Blease said. “It may even be that some combination of these two theories helps to explain depressive symptoms.”

Blease recently published an article in the Review of General Psychology asserting that the context of evolutionary psychology is necessary to understand Facebook’s effect on our well-being. It may be that spending too much time immersed in pictures and status updates leaves us with the impression we are being socially out-competed. This might trigger feelings of sadness and dysphoria, even if that impression is inaccurate: Most people aren’t on Facebook trumpeting life’s struggles and disappointments.

According to Blease, social competition theory could help contextualize some of these issues. It isn’t enough to observe the modern environment, especially with all the difficulties in implementing controlled psychological studies. How our mind evolved has to be taken into consideration.


Of love and Facebook

Facebook as infidelity facilitator has been documented ad nauseam, but what’s perhaps more surprising is how insidiously it brings the past to the forefront.

Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., began studying rekindled romances in the early ’90s. Initially, she studied what happened when people who had loved each other early in life parted, but then tried the relationship again five or more years later. Surprising herself and others, Kalish’s results revealed the potent resilience of teen love.

“I knew teen romances were important, for those teens who have romances, but I didn’t think the reunions years later would work,” she said. “But that’s why you do research—to discover new information.”

Most people aren’t on Facebook trumpeting life’s struggles and disappointments.

She called it the Lost Love Project. Even in that pre-Internet time, it wasn’t that hard to find people: Kalish only encountered four people among 1,001 participants who had trouble finding their old boyfriend or girlfriend. Among those studied, she found that 72 percent of reunited couples were still together when surveyed, and 78 percent if they had been first loves.

She attributed the strong success rate to shared cultural history, the fact that personality doesn’t actually change that much over time, and that the romances took place at a critical time in childhood. Those dating during adolescence were “forming identities together, and even working out together what love means to them,” according to Kalish. Often it was an external factor (a disapproving parent, a relocation, military service) that had disrupted the initial relationships.

In short, Kalish’s findings were happy. Many of her participants were widowed or divorced when they sought out their “one that got away.” They’d often found each other by calling a friend or relative from their former shared hometown.

Kalish published a follow-up study a decade later, and when the arrival of Facebook made it easier to find an old flame, Kalish’s participant cohort changed dramatically. In 2006, 62 percent were married to someone else when they reconnected, and only a sliver (5 percent) left their marriages and married their first love. Infidelity though, was rampant.

“It’s sad actually,” Kalish said. “It’s become a sad topic.”

Kalish offers consultations to people and hosts a forum on her website for people grappling with staying in marriages or leaving for a first love. Kalish points out it’s not only Facebook. Websites like had the same effect, but “the Facebook story” is what she hears most often now when people contact her for advice.

A big problem is that at first it seems so innocuous—a quick hello, a friend request; people reconnect with all manner of other old friends, why not a long-ago boyfriend/girlfriend? Kalish urges anyone who is married against contacting a lost love at all.

A big problem is that at first it seems so innocuous—a quick hello, a friend request.

“It takes years for some people to work through the lost love,” she said. “They don’t want to go through the pain of saying it’s not going to work. There are people who’ve been on my message board for many years.”

Kalish hopes her research will encourage parents to take teen relationships more seriously. And if there’s a bright spot, it’s that this too might be a passing era: Kalish’s participants were adolescents in the pre-Facebook era. In the future, we’ll likely be more accustomed to how close social media can make us feel to the past and better equipped to guard against the perils of that illusion.


Introspection avoidance

Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Virginia whose research area is on self-knowledge. Last year he published a study about how hard it is for people to enjoy their thoughts when they’re alone and have nothing to do.

In one part of the study, participants in a lab setting were instructed to entertain themselves with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes. The lab was equipped with a button that caused a mild electric shock when pressed. The participants experienced the shock ahead of time, in an attempt to quell any idle curiosity. During the allotted 15 minutes, 67 percent of men and 25 percent percent of women chose to shock themselves at least once—even those who’d said earlier they would pay $5 not to receive another shock.

Apparently, for many, negative stimulus beats no stimulus at all. I asked Wilson if perhaps his subjects could have been motivated by other factors; I wondered if some did it for the sake of the story, to tell others they chose to shock themselves.

“There was a certain novelty to it,” Wilson agreed, but since publishing he’s conducted another study where the shock was replaced with a computer key that elicited unpleasant noises, such as the sound of vomiting or nails on a chalkboards (again, with participants hearing the sound prior to the introspective period). Results were a little lower than the shock, but still “a substantial number of people opted to hear it again,” Wilson said.

Wilson gets asked a lot to extrapolate on his findings with regard to Internet usage and social media.

“I’m of two minds,” he said. “It’s hard to argue things aren’t getting worse.”

According to researchers, the Facebook Self is really a “hoped-for possible identity.”

Yet, Wilson also points out that looking at literature going as far back as the Middle Ages, it’s easy to find quotes from thinkers bemoaning the lack of contemplation in their times.

Like Blease, Wilson cites the difficulty of conducting rigorous research on the effects of social media on levels of introspection, which requires a control group, but presently there are too many variables at play to make accurate comparisons among people who use Facebook frequently, seldom, or not at all.


The Facebook Self

While the self is the most fundamental quantity addressed by psychology, the literature on identity theory as it relates to Facebook is still relatively slim. In the pre-Facebook era, researchers concentrated a lot on the experimentation (and deception) anonymous presentations of self online afforded.

In time, the Internet becomes less anonymous, and our online identities move closer to our identities “in real life.” In 2008, sociologists at Temple University published an article on online identity construction that takes place before relationships “anchored” offline—in other words, how you perform your identity online in the presence of family members, coworkers, neighbors. They analyzed 63 Facebook accounts and found there was more to be gleaned from photos, wall posts, and Likes than what was directly written in the “About Me” box.

While people also used many different kinds and qualities of photos for their profile shots and albums, they all evinced social desirability: People posted way more group photos than solo shots. Photos tended to imply people were well-connected. And while people might not have written much under “About Me,” most used the quotes box for some kind of reflection on life (‘‘I do not intend to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death”). The final commonality was well-roundedness. Most users’ accounts showed a variety of activities and interests. People did not want to be defined by a single factor.

Popular, thoughtful, well-rounded. The researchers concluded the Facebook Self could most accurately be characterized as a “hoped-for possible identity.” In real life, many, or most, of us are not popular, thoughtful, and well-rounded, but we’d like to be.

As the distance between online and offline life closes, Facebook—wherein the past is a click away and the present is filtered through our aspirations—presents a reality that’s not totally factual but close enough to confuse, and that can affect emotional well-being.

In real life too though, identity is performance. Over time, if the selves we perform on Facebook grow closer to those we act out offline, then one might expect the problems of mind and heart we face in both realms to mirror each other. In which case, if we add an addendum to the old Greek aphorism—“know thyself, and thy Facebook Self”—we’ll probably do OK.

Illustration by J. Longo