In a groundbreaking new study, Professor Derrick Wirtz of UBC Okanaga has examined the relationship between social media and life satisfaction. He explains that it is not if or when, but how we use social media that can negatively influence our overall sense of happiness and well-being.
“Social network sites are an integral part of everyday life for many people around the world,” said Professor Wirtz. “Every day, billions of people interact with social media. Yet the widespread use of social network sites stands in sharp contrast to a comparatively small body of research on how this use impacts a person’s happiness.”
The study was focused on how people use three major social platforms – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Professor Wirtz said that even before COVID-19 and self-isolation became standard practice, social media transformed how we interact with others. Online social interaction is quickly replacing conversations that take place in person.
While face-to-face interactions are associated with satisfaction and contentment, Professor Wirtz notes that many people come away from social media with negative feelings. There are a variety of underlying reasons for this, and one of the biggest issues is social comparison. For example, study participants said the more they compared themselves to others while using social networks, the less happy they felt.
“Viewing images and updates that selectively portray others positively may lead social media users to underestimate how much others actually experience negative emotions and lead people to conclude that their own life – with its mix of positive and negative feelings – is, by comparison, not as good.”
Professor Wirtz explains that viewing other people’s posts and images while not interacting with them lends itself to comparison without the mood-boosting benefits that ordinarily follow social contact, which can undermine well-being and lower self-esteem.
“Passive use, scrolling through others’ posts and updates, involves little person-to-person reciprocal interaction while providing ample opportunity for upward comparison.”
For the study, individuals were asked about four specific functions of Facebook: messaging, checking a news feed, reading world news, and posting status updates. The analysis revealed that the most frequently used function is passively checking one’s news feed without making contact with other users. The effects on happiness and well-being associated with this form of Facebook use were found to be consistently negative.
“The three social network sites examined – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – yielded remarkably convergent findings. The more respondents had recently used these sites, either in aggregate or individually, the more negative effect they reported when they responded to our randomly-timed surveys over a 10-day period.”
Through his research, which was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Wirtz found that people use social media more when they are lonely, but time spent on social media only increases feelings of loneliness. “Today, the necessity of seeing and hearing friends and family only through social media due to COVID-19 might serve as a reminder of missed opportunities to spend time together.”
Despite the discouraging findings, the research showed that social media can also be used in positive ways. Professor Wirtz suggests that users avoid passively scrolling and resist comparing themselves to other people on social media. He says the sites should be used for direct interactions and social connectedness, such as chatting with others.
“If we all remember to do that, the negative impact of social media use could be reduced – and social networks sites could even have the potential to improve our well-being and happiness. In other words, we need to remember how we use social media has the potential to shape the effects on our day-to-day happiness.”
The study is published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.