Research roundup: The impact of Facebook on psychosocial health

This issue highlights research into the positive and negative impacts of social media use on psychosocial health and well-being.

Created in 2004, Facebook is the social media phenomenon that allows its users to create a profile, share photos, and keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues. As of December 2014, more than 1.39 billion individuals used Facebook at least once every 30 days (Facebook, 2014). With frequent reports in the news regarding both the positive and negative impacts of social media use on psychosocial health and well-being, it is important that psychologists acquire a comprehensive picture of the existing research on Facebook.

The first group of studies highlighted in this research roundup examined the impact of Facebook exposure on a variety of psychological outcomes including body image, depressive symptoms and self-esteem in young adults, and investigated whether degree and direction of social comparison could explain these relations. The last study explored Facebook’s utility as a tool to promote well-being in socially anxious individuals.

In addition to reviewing the following research summaries, psychologists are encouraged to explore the literature more completely to determine what may be useful to them in practice.

Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P.C., Vartanian, L.R., & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body Image, 13, 38-45. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.12.002

Steers, M.N., Wickham, R.E., & Acitelli, L.K. (2014). Seeing everyone else’s highlight reels: How Facebook usage is linked to depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(8), 701-731. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701

Vogel, E.A., Rose, J.P., Roberts, L.R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206-222. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000047

Summaries

Fardouly et al (2015) conducted a cross-sectional study of 112 young adult females from the United Kingdom. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups — browsing either through Facebook, a fashion magazine website or an appearance-neutral control website for 10 minutes and they could view any content they wished on the assigned website. 

Participants completed measures of state negative mood and body dissatisfaction, social comparison tendencies and the Self-Discrepancy Index (SDI; Dittmar et al, 1996). The SDI asked participants to describe three aspects of themselves that they would ideally like to change and rated how different they wished to be, as well as the importance of this change to them. Responses on the SDI were coded by the authors as pertaining to either 1) weight and shape, or 2) face, hair and skin. Results showed that women who briefly viewed Facebook reported being in a more negative mood relative to the control condition. Although there was no difference between groups in body dissatisfaction ratings or weight- and shape-related discrepancies, women in the Facebook group who reported often comparing themselves to others were more likely to wish to change the appearance of their face, hair or skin.

Steers et al (2014) conducted two studies to examine whether an individual’s tendency to make social comparisons underlies the relationship between Facebook use and depressive symptoms. In the first study, 180 ethnically diverse undergraduate students (141 females) completed an online measure of general social comparison tendencies on Facebook and a measure of depressive symptoms, and they reported their average daily Facebook usage.

Analyses revealed that the more time that males and females spent on Facebook, the more depressive symptoms they reported and the more they tended to compare themselves to others. The more that males, but not females, compared themselves to others, the more depressive symptoms they reported.

In the second study, a separate sample of 154 undergraduates (95 female) spent two weeks recording the frequency and length of their Facebook usage, and completed measures assessing depressive symptoms and three types of social comparison tendencies: general, upward and downward. Upward and downward social comparison refer to a tendency to compare oneself to others who appear to be doing better and worse off than themselves, respectively, for purposes of self-evaluation.

The authors found that the more time that individuals spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to make general or upward comparisons and the less likely they were to make downward comparisons. Greater engagement in any type of social comparison was associated with more depressive symptoms.

Vogel et al (2014) conducted two studies exploring the associations between exposure to Facebook, types of social comparison and changes in self-evaluation. In the first study, 145 ethnically diverse undergraduate students (106 female) completed computerized questionnaires assessing frequency of Facebook use, social comparison (upward or downward) processes used while on Facebook, and self-esteem. Results illustrated that those who used Facebook more frequently had lower trait self-esteem and were more likely to report making upward and downward social comparisons. Further analyses demonstrated that upward, but not downward, social comparison explained the association between Facebook use and trait self-esteem.

In the second study, 128 undergraduates (94 female) were randomly assigned to view one of four target Facebook profiles for three minutes and were instructed to evaluate themselves and the target individual immediately afterward. The authors manipulated the personal content (for example, photos and statuses posted by the target) and the social content (such as comments and "likes" provided by the target’s social network) of the target’s profile to be of either upward or downward comparative nature. Findings showed that people who viewed a target profile with upward social (such as a high activity social network) or upward personal (such as positive photos and statuses) content had lower reported self-esteem and more negative self-evaluations.

Practical Implications

These three articles demonstrate that comparing oneself to others on Facebook can be associated with multiple negative outcomes, including low self-esteem, depressive symptoms and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. Although Steers et al (2014) found a negative relationship between Facebook use and downward social comparisons and Vogel et al (2014) found a positive relationship, the research illustrates that engagement in social comparison of any kind while on Facebook may be harmful to one’s psychosocial health. This could be explained in part by the fact that individuals can carefully select the photos and information they choose to display on Facebook, and so people end up comparing their own lives to inaccurate representations of others’ lives.

Clinicians may wish to pay close attention to the Facebook use habits of clients who struggle with their body image, particularly women with such problems as eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder. Clinicians may also want to provide therapeutic tools that help combat feelings of self-dissatisfaction when using Facebook or other social networks, especially for clients who often compare themselves to others. While social connection is beneficial for all, exploring opportunities to connect outside of social media for those who are depressed may be especially important.

Determining whether Facebook (or other social media) usage is beneficial or harmful for an individual may be an important discussion topic in therapy. Although Facebook is often perceived by individuals with low self-esteem as a safe environment for self-expression, clinicians may wish to consider the possibility that Facebook use perpetuates a vicious cycle for these individuals; clients with low self-esteem may use Facebook to receive social support but in doing so expose themselves to upward social comparisons, further damaging their self-esteem and increasing their need for support from others.

Indian, M., & Grieve, R. (2014). When Facebook is easier than face-to-face: Social support derived from Facebook in socially anxious individuals. Personality and Individual Differences, 59, 102-106. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.11.016

Summary 

Indian & Grieve (2014) examined 299 young adult Facebook users (257 female) to see whether perceptions of social support on Facebook were related to subjective well-being in those who have varying levels of social anxiety. Participants were split into low- and high-social anxiety groups based on their score on a measure of social fears, and everyone completed questionnaires assessing perceived social support offline and on Facebook, and well-being. Analyses revealed that, together, offline and Facebook social support predicted well-being for both social anxiety groups. Social support through Facebook was a relatively better predictor of well-being only for individuals with high social anxiety.

Practical Implications

This article suggests that individuals use both offline and online social support to enhance personal well-being, but that for those who experience high levels of social anxiety, social support on Facebook is a more important predictor of well-being than is offline social support. 

Clinicians may wish to encourage socially anxious clients to consider Facebook as a less overwhelming way to connect with others and potentially even as a strategy to confront social anxiety, but should be cautious not to promote long-term avoidance of face-to-face interactions in lieu of online ones. Clinicians may also want to consider Facebook as a social support tool for those who are unable to engage socially with others in person for reasons other than social anxiety (such as distance or physical limitations).