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While we all know that there are downsides to our choice to use Facebook – like significantly less privacy to name one – this seemingly obvious but rarely talked about pitfall is worth noting: Facebook use tends to make people jealous of their peers.
In a new study, researchers detail how Facebook promotes feelings of envy which leads to people competing with their “friends” ultimately leading to a cycle of more envy and decreased satisfaction in life.
The paper, authored by Hanna Krasnova of Humboldt University and Helena Wenninger, Thomas Widjaja and Peter Buxmann of the Technical University of Darmstadt, claims a definitive link between passive following on Facebook and feelings of envy.
The study involved nearly 600 German individuals participating in two independent studies. One looked at the scale, scope and nature of envy incidents triggered by Facebook. The other study looked at the connection between passive following on Facebook and life satisfaction.
According to the researchers, because of these invidious feelings aroused by the passive use of Facebook, their subjects experienced a decrease in life satisfaction.
Passive use of Facebook is defined by the study as synonymous to “content consumption” and “social browsing”.
What the study suggests is that by seeing just how well other people connected to them through the use of social media are doing in their lives, feelings of envy are aroused in Facebook users.
Take for example how one might see photos of vacations, happy family gatherings and the like on their Facebook feed. In real life interaction, you’ll only get to see these photos if you are close friends with a person. With Facebook, you get to see it just because you are “friends” on Facebook with a person.
Facebook has indeed made it easier to connect with other people. This does not necessarily lead to only envy as the researchers also point out that there are positive cognitive effects of being able to easily follow the lives of other people.
These positive effects include reduction of uncertainty leading to social trust, civic engagement and political participation. This ease in following others’ lives also helps develop a sense of connectedness, the researchers point out.
However, they also note that a growing body of evidence shows that passive use of Facebook and other social media sites to follow the lives of other people can lead to exhaustion, annoyance, irritability and overload.
Not that every person on Facebook is completely being honest about their lives. People tend to paint a rosier picture of their lives in their social media use, the paper says.
The researchers say that social networking environments are favorable grounds for narcissistic behavior. They say that people tend to underestimate negative experiences of others, overestimate personal positive experiences and post more about positive things about themselves on social media sites like Facebook.
This leads to what the researchers call the “self-promotion – envy spiral” on Facebook and other social networking sites. Because users become envious of things like happy photos or status updates and whatnot on social networks, they react by engaging in self-promotion more often.
Social network users, for example, post more self-promotional content like their own photos and status updates depicting favorable life conditions. This in turn makes people connected to them feel envious thereby triggering the same response.
The possible solutions, the researchers suggest, is to either hide posts from friends they feel envious of, refrain from passive consumption of content on social media site, or not use social media sites at all. However, hiding posts, refraining from following other people or foregoing the use of social networking sites may lead to missing out on really significant updates about people users know, the paper notes.
For Zuckerberg and company, this identifies a new threat to maintaining a stable number of users as this “cycle of envy” actually leads to people abandoning the site, the researchers say. They write that “from a provider’s perspective, our findings signal that users frequently perceive Facebook as a stressful environment, which may, in the long run, endanger platform sustainability.”
Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat To Users’ Life Satisfaction? (PDF)
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