Can too much Facebook bring on anxiety and depression?

Browsing Facebook has become a daily activity for hundreds of millions of people. Because so many people engage with the website daily, researchers are interested in how emotionally involved Facebook users can be with the social networking site and how regular use can affect their mental health.

Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that Facebook use can lead to symptoms of depression if the social networking site triggers feelings of envy among its users. Professor Margaret Duffy says that how Facebook users use the site makes a difference in how they respond to it.

“Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives,” she said. “However, if Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship—things that cause envy among users—use of the site can lead to feelings of depression.”

In the study, the researchers surveyed young Facebook users and found that some of those who engage in “surveillance use” of Facebook also experience symptoms of depression, while those who use the site simply to stay connected do not suffer negative effects. Surveillance use of Facebook occurs when users browse the website to see how their friends are doing compared with their own lives. The researchers found that Facebook postings about things such as expensive holidays, new houses or cars, or happy relationships can evoke feelings of envy among surveillance users. They say that these feelings of envy can then lead to Facebook users experiencing symptoms of depression.

The researchers found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression. The risk comes when Facebook is used as a way to compare up our own accomplishments against others; it can then have a negative effect.

The study found that, while Facebook can exert positive effects on well-being, but it can also trigger envy among users. Users need to realise that positive self-presentation is an important motivation in using social media, so it is to be expected that many users would only post positive things about themselves.

As a counsellor in Hastings, I often find that social media are now complicating the personal relationships of clients. The instant availability of Facebook, texting and tweeting means that people give themselves little time to process what someone might have said to them electronically, leading to automatic negative thoughts.