Facebook and the Fear of Missing Out - Is It Causing Psychological Distress?

by InnerHour on Sun, 17 Jul 2016

“My name is Pooja (name changed) and I work in the finance department of my company and I lead a comfortable life. I am single, enjoy my job, live in a nice flat and have many friends. I sat down with a cup of coffee last weekend and was browsing through some of my old friends’ profiles when I started wondering how exciting their life was compared to mine. They all seemed to be doing well, were in good relationships and seemed to be travelling all the time. I was quite irritated and upset after half an hour, wishing that I too had a boyfriend with whom I could holiday more. I am generally a happy person but this is not the first time I have been feeling upset this way. I am wondering if there is something wrong with me…”

This is not an uncommon story and nowadays we often see or hear of experiences where social media use seems to have triggered emotional distress in some way.

Facebook Use

There are over 1.09 billion active daily users of Facebook, and about 989 million people use Facebook on their smartphones daily. Most of us access the social networking site every day, and at times, more than once a day. However, it is important to keep in mind that while social networking has its benefits, overuse of or prolonged exposure to it can be harmful. The effects of Facebook use on our well-being have caught the attention of researchers recently.

One of the most widely researched areas is ‘Facebook depression’. This term was coined by researchers who found that the use of Facebook, just as any other social interaction, can sometimes trigger underlying, dormant concerns. At other times, the content we see can worsen some of the difficult emotions that we might already be experiencing. When the underlying concerns are activated because of the nature of content we see, and when these concerns are left unaddressed, it could then result in depression.

How Can Facebook Contribute to Depression?

Some of us are passive Facebook users – we simply scroll through the news feed and read blogs, while others actively post updates, share their views, and ‘like’ and comment on their friends’ updates. Research has shown that surveillance use, i.e., the passive reading of news feed, and following friends’ photos and status updates is more likely to trigger difficult emotions. This suggests that the way in which we use Facebook and the thoughts and feelings elicited by our use can sometimes point us to the probable cause of depression.

Many of us are inclined to compare our lives with those of others, especially our peers. Depending on how fortunate or unfortunate we might perceive others to be in comparison to ourselves, it could make us feel worse or better respectively about our lives. Much of what we see on Facebook contains posts or images that show us the positive or the desirable aspect of our friends’ lives. These could include photos in exotic locations, engagement announcements, job promotions and purchase of a car or home, to name a few. In addition, people choose their Facebook profile photos very carefully, by trying to conform to societal ideals of attractiveness. Then, for instance, when women view attractive images of other ‘real’ women as opposed to ‘models’, they perceive these to be more accurate and unaltered thus giving themselves another unwelcome comparison standard. When we are dissatisfied with our life situations, seeing such updates can sometimes make us weigh our lives against what we see of others and this can lead to the following:

  • Low self-worth or seeing ourselves as inadequate or ‘not good enough’

  • Feelings of envy or wanting what someone else has

  • Body dissatisfaction or the negative evaluation of one’s body shape and weight

Research also suggests that heavy users of Facebook who mainly engage in ‘surveillance use’ are more likely to engage in social comparison. Such repeated comparison is likely to lead to negative outcomes for emotional well-being. If you find that you are unable to control your Facebook use or if using Facebook is generating difficult or unpleasant emotions, you might want to start by monitoring and adapting your Facebook usage.

Seeking Help

If things are still challenging emotionally, psychotherapy might be able to help you. You can learn to identify and change the perceptions that are unhelpful for you, understand their effects on your emotions, and learn strategies to manage your social media use. 

If you or someone close to you is facing psychological distress due to social media, an InnerHour therapist will be able to help.


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