One day last summer my 5-year-old son peered over my shoulder at the Facebook app filling the screen of my phone. He was looking at a photo of his two best friends, arms around each other, at the beach. "Why weren't we there?" he asked, his little voice uncertain. "They are having fun without me!"
I cringed. I felt terrible that he felt left out, guilty that I'd been on Facebook in his vicinity, and empathetic because there have been times I've felt the same way. It's FOMO: fear of missing out.
With nearly a billion users accessing Facebook daily, many studies have been conducted about the emotional consequences linked to the social network. Particularly compelling is research published recently in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology which found that seeing everyone's digital highlight reel can lead to depressive feelings. The mediating factor is a well-established psychological phenomenon, "social comparison."
The author of the study, Dr. Mai-Ly N. Steers, was spurred to research the psychological effects of Facebook after witnessing her teenage half-sister become depressed after not being invited to a homecoming dance. "After seeing all the photos from the dance on Facebook, my sister realized how much she was missing out on and she sunk into an even deeper depression," says Steers, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Houston.
"With Facebook there is so much information you wouldn't have access to normally," she said. "You become privy to the things you didn't get invited to, the events you missed out on."
Steers says that while other studies have established a link between depressive symptoms and Facebook, her study is the first to determine that the mediating fact is social comparison. Social comparisons occur when people automatically compare themselves with others on abilities or attributes that they deem important. "Heavy Facebook users might be comparing themselves to their friends, which in turn can make them feel depressed," she says.
During a difficult period that involved infertility and a long process to adopt her daughter, Molly Partridge took a two-year hiatus from Facebook. "I was going through a tough time emotionally," Partridge recalls. "I was vulnerable."
Partridge is now back on Facebook, and enjoying keeping up with her connections. Yet she foresees that she'll back away from it again in the future any time she feels vulnerable. "With Facebook it's great to get support, but there's too much in your face."
Indeed, if you're feeling insecure, combing through Facebook increases the likelihood that you'll feel even worse, says Dr. Ellen Braaten, an assistant psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"It used to be that if you broke up with someone, you'd never see them again. But now there are constant reminders. Even if you block your ex, other people you're friends with will still be connected to them. It's very difficult to break away."
These days, "Facebook Vacations" are catching on. One recent "vacationer" was Somerville's Geoff Hargadon, who recently went off Facebook and Instagram for 40 days. While the site wasn't making him depressed, he felt he was addicted to his phone, and social media was what was drawing him in.
The experience was liberating for Hargadon, who is now back on Facebook, but uses it much less frequently — the app is still off his phone.
After dating a serial Facebook poster "who used it to constantly announce to the world she was happy and in a relationship," Scott Shultz, a divorced dad in Medway, became turned off with the site. The experience made him crave his privacy. "I realized I don't want the attention of social media, I want to go about my life in a private manner," says Shultz.
The key is to be grateful for what you do have, says Steers, who notes that social comparison can also be a positively motivating factor. "You might see on Facebook that a friend has recently lost 5 pounds and you think, 'Hey I can do that too.' "