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Facebook Envy: How The Social Network Affects Our Self-Esteem

Hannah Musgrove, 17, opts off Facebook for a variety of reasons. She even turned down an offer from her parents to buy her an iPhone because she says she prefers her old-school flip phone. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Hannah Musgrove, 17, opts off Facebook for a variety of reasons. She even turned down an offer from her parents to buy her an iPhone because she says she prefers her old-school flip phone. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Facebook has been growing at an explosive clip since it launched in 2004, and the number of users on the site topped 1 billion last year. Plenty of people have figured out how to use the vast social network in productive, positive ways — but for others it still feels like a challenging, new frontier.

Some of us project — and consume — idealized images through Facebook, and researchers have been trying to figure out how all this flawlessness affects us in the real world.

Some of the freshest data on Facebook’s impact on us comes out of two German universities. At the end of January, researchers released details from joint studies exploring how the mass proliferation of so-called “perfect lives” on Facebook can cause rampant envy and distress.

“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart couldn’t resist ribbing a report about it on NBC News, delivered by Brian Williams:

Williams: A lot of items in the news today about our health and well being, including that Facebook can full on bum you out.

Stewart: Whoa! Thank you, brah! … Pray tell, what about Facebook puts at risk for the bumming?

Williams: Researchers call it Facebook envy. It’s the act of viewing all of your friends’ fabulous vacations, lovely children, attractive friends and great social lives. The research showed it can leave people feeling — you guessed it — lonely, frustrated and angry.

Stewart: I’m not a doctor, but if you get upset because other people are happy, it seems your problem might not be Facebook, but that you’re an [expletive.]

Not A Laughing Matter

Sure, it’s easy to crack jokes about Facebook, but Belmont-based clinical psychologist Craig Malkin takes findings like this seriously. The studies showed that one in three respondents felt more dissatisfied with their own lives after spending time on the site. Viewing the number of birthday greetings and “likes” were big culprits. Unprecedented access to other people’s photos also triggered emotional pain and resentment.

“This is something that keeps showing up in the research,” Malkin explained. “Some people out there wind up negatively comparing themselves to what’s portrayed on Facebook by their friends.”

We all know how the definition of the word “friend” has been challenged by social media. Our circles have grown to include everyone from best buddies to co-workers, to kindergarten classmates and friends of friends of friends, to strangers. Connecting with this vast online community can upend our sense of self, according to Malkin. He says many 20-somethings are telling him and his colleagues that they actually “hate” Facebook — even though they’re on it a lot.

Malkin grabs his laptop and launches his profile page. He’s an instructor at Harvard Medical School and mainly uses Facebook as a platform for the books and articles he’s written. Malkin said the social network’s negative impact on our identity and self-esteem is playing out in therapy rooms everywhere.

After waiting for an interview to happen that didn’t, Craig Malkin posted this illustration of a penguin to show how he felt. He received 23 likes and 6 comments, which he said made him feel “pretty good.”

After waiting for an interview to happen that didn’t, Craig Malkin posted this illustration of a penguin to show how he felt. He received 23 likes and six comments, which he said made him feel “pretty good.” (Click to enlarge)

“We’re really just in the infancy when it comes to this research, but there are some themes that are emerging,” he said. “And one of the clearest themes is when people go on to Facebook they’re often crafting a persona — they’re portraying themselves at their happiest. They’re often choosing events that feel best to them and they’re leaving out other things.”

These picture-perfect images can be especially difficult for teenagers to grapple with because they’re often hyper-conscious of measuring up to their peers. It’s a tender and critical stage in life — a time for forming an understanding of who you are.

Seventeen-year-old Hannah Musgrove is a senior at Milton High School. She agreed to meet me on Harvard’s campus, where Facebook was born. Right now she’s taking a break from the site — mainly because it’s time consuming — but she can relate to the research.

“When you go on Facebook it’s kind of like you’re going through everyone’s pictures, and you get lost in it,” Musgrove said. “And you’re looking at everyone’s life, like, ‘Oh, that looks like so much fun, oh they’re so cool, they’re so pretty, they have all these cool pictures.’ But really they’ve taken so much time just to make that image on their Facebook.”

And Hannah admitted with a little laugh, “It can make you feel bad I guess, or like, you know, down about yourself.”

Crafting An Image

It can be hard looking around Facebook, but it’s also stressful presenting an image of yourself, Musgrove admitted. And not surprisingly, people go to lengths to perfect their profile.

“You can literally airbrush your pictures online for free. I know, I’ve done this,” said 16-year-old Chloe Miller, a sophomore at Newton South High School. “You upload your picture and you can take out all your little pimples and stuff to make it look like your skin is perfect, your hair is perfect.”

Miller and her real-world friend Paige Herer told me they log on to Facebook 10 to 20 times a day, sometimes between classes. Each has about 1,000 Facebook friends and they say profile pictures — or “pro pics,” as they’re called by their peers — are a huge deal. Some teens update them obsessively, vying for “likes” on Facebook. It’s a photo-driven numbers game, Miller and Herer said, pointing to one Brookline High student’s “pro pic” that attracted more than 600 likes.

Posting pictures of high school parties is another preoccupation.

Newton South High School sophomores Chloe Miller and Paige Herer log on to Facebook 10 to 20 times a day. They say posting and "liking" profile pictures are a huge part of some teens’ social media experience. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Newton South High School sophomores Chloe Miller and Paige Herer log on to Facebook 10 to 20 times a day. They say posting and “liking” profile pictures are a huge part of some teens’ social media experience. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“There’s definitely people that all of their pictures from parties look like they’re having such a great time and you wish you were there,” Herer explained. “But then when you actually go to one of those parties everyone’s just sitting around and not doing anything except for taking these pictures.”

Keeping up a type of facade by only posting pretty pictures and fun experiences can be tough, Herer admitted, especially when things aren’t going so well.

“It just makes you feel worse about what’s going on, and it makes you feel bad that you feel like you have to hide it from other people,” she said.

Omitting Our Flaws

“The self is, to some extent, a story we tell,” Malkin explained. “When people are choosing to leave out the normal chinks in human armor, the normal vulnerabilities, how can they again not feel like there’s something wrong with that?”

Malkin also said he’s been observing a common sentiment in his private practice. “People are leery of saying that they’re struggling in some ways, and saying it openly.” And not just on Facebook, Malkin clarified, “but even in their everyday relationships.”

The psychologist said concealing the less desirable aspects of our lives over and over again “forecloses intimacy,” meaning it can condition and prevent us from nurturing truly intimate connections with others. But what about our relationship to ourselves?

“We’re always cultivating postures. It’s an agreed upon human behavior that we all present ourselves, and cover up and cultivate these images and personas. So now it’s broadened.”
– Steven Copper, clinical psychologist

“It affects it deeply,” Malkin answered, “because part of the way we develop a strong sense of self and identity is by being known and known by others — appreciated. They see who we are, and they value who we are, including our flaws.”

Cultivating Postures Is Nothing New

But Steven Cooper, a clinical psychologist in Cambridge, says being selective as we design and share our identity isn’t anything new. We’re constantly posturing in the real world, too.

“When deciding what shirt we’re going to put on, or jacket, or dress, whether we’re going to wear makeup, all these things, we’re always cultivating postures,” Cooper said. “It’s an agreed upon human behavior that we all present ourselves, and cover up and cultivate these images and personas. So now it’s broadened.”

And it’s broadcast to a much wider audience in ways that were unthinkable in the past. But even with all of this curating, Cooper believes the truth about us has a knack for revealing itself — in life, and online.

“Our thoughtfulness, our inhibitions, our expressiveness, our creativity, our humor, our sadness, our aggression. Those elements of our personality are probably going to shine through,” he said.

Malkin says he looks forward to future research on the different ways we disclose ourselves and perceive others via social media, and how those experiences affect our sense of personal identity.

“I think the mistake is just assuming that we’re just going to figure out how to use it in a way that makes us feel good,” Malkin said, “because that’s clearly not the case.”

And of course there are as many ways to use Facebook as there are Facebook users. There’s a growing body of research extolling the benefits we reap from social media. For now, though, Malkin believes we’ll have to learn as we go because there are very few sign-posts telling us exactly how the largest social network ever will make us feel about ourselves.

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