Nearly 900 million people use Facebook every day. One reason is to stay connected with friends. But some users who spend a lot of time on Facebook may find they are spending less time connecting and more time comparing. Now a new study finds that this type of social comparison – coupled with heavy use of Facebook – is linked to depressive symptoms.

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Researchers found that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others are linked.

Writing in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers from the University of Houston (UH), TX, describe how they carried out two studies to investigate how social comparison by Facebook users might affect their psychological health.

Both studies showed that Facebook users felt depressed when they compared themselves to their peers.

However, study leader Mai-Ly Steers, a UH doctoral candidate in social psychology says:

“It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand.”

The idea of social comparison is not new – it was originally put forward by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. The theory proposes that we all have a need to evaluate ourselves against others.

The UH team conducted their studies because while research on social comparison is not a new field, the context of online social networks like Facebook – which started only 10 years ago – is new. In fact, since the 1950s, most studies on social comparison have focused on face-to-face interactions.

The first study involving 180 participants, found that for both men and women, time spent of Facebook was linked to depressive symptoms. But in men only, the researchers found that making Facebook social comparisons affected the link.

In the second study, involving 152 participants, the researchers also found that the link between time spent on Facebook and depressive symptoms was affected by social comparisons – and this time there was no difference between men and women.

They suggest their findings show that engaging in social comparisons on social media sites may make people feel worse than when they do it face-to-face, as Steers explains:

“One danger is that Facebook often gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare.”

Research on social comparison usually considers two aspects: upward and downward social comparison. Upward is where we compare ourselves with people we see as socially superior in some way, and downward is the other direction – where we compare ourselves with people we see as socially inferior.

The UH researchers note that in the second study they considered “upward, nondirectional, and downward” social comparisons.

Another feature of online social media is that you cannot control the impulse to compare because you do not know what your friends are going to post, says Steers. In the face-to-face situation at least you have some element of control because it is a conversation.

Also our Facebook friends tend to post the good things that are happening to them – and often leave out the bad things – so when we make our comparisons we are comparing ourselves their “highlight reels,” and this “may lead us to think their lives are better than they actually are and conversely, make us feel worse about our own lives,” she adds.

Steers says for people who are already distressed and experiencing emotional problems, being faced with this distorted view of their friends’ lives may increase feelings of loneliness and isolation:

This research and previous research indicates the act of socially comparing oneself to others is related to long-term destructive emotions. Any benefit gained from making social comparisons is temporary and engaging in frequent social comparison of any kind may be linked to lower well-being.”

The researchers hope their findings will help people see that new technology has good and bad points and suggest perhaps reducing Facebook use among those at risk for depression should be considered in mental health treatments.

In May 2014, Medical News Today learned how researchers in Australia investigated links between Facebook use and sense of belonging. They concluded that it depends on how much people use Facebook to communicate. When they compared users who were not allowed to post messages to users who were, they found the nonposting group reported lower levels of belonging and meaningful existence.