Everyone, their mum, and their cat has Facebook, or so it can often seem. As one of the most subscribed-to places online, and perhaps some people’s only online connection, looking at what Facebook has to do with mental health could be important on a large scale.
Simply searching for “Facebook” flags up a New Yorker headline- “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy”. Narrowing it down to “facebook and mental health” adds BrainBlogger’s “Facebook is no friend to mental health”, and “7 Ways Facebook is Bad For Your Mental Health, from Psychology Today.
The BrainBlogger and Psychology Today articles were almost uniformly negative, showing research that connects Facebook use to envious friendships, jealous relationships and decreased life satisfaction.
The New Yorker article included its fair share of research on the unhappy consequences of Facebook usage, but also included some optimistic findings. Their best answer was: it depends what people are actually doing on Facebook. People actively using Facebook to keep in contact and engage with loved ones benefit from the social connection. People passively browsing their timelines, however, are often left feeling worse after using Facebook.
Facebook as a mental health resource
If actively participating on Facebook is generally beneficial, does that make Facebook a good resource for people with mental health issues?
It’s definitely good for mental health organisations, as they can reach a large audience and put the topic slightly higher in people’s minds. For awareness projects and campaigning, it’s a good choice as well.
Individuals may get a lot of support from Facebook groups, so it may be really beneficial for them. However, people who wish to hide their illness or struggles may not want to interact with any mental health-related pages on Facebook; it may raise questions from others that they don’t feel able to answer, or they could fear that revealing any information about their mental health may be used against them. For some, Facebook could be too public for meaningful discussion.
The biggest reason why it might not be a good idea, is that it may actually make people feel like they can be less genuine.
Self-esteem is firmly intertwined with mental health; low self-esteem is a contributing factor to some conditions and a common consequence of experiencing mental health issues. People with lower self-esteem often find online contact a good way of socializing, many seeing it as safer and more beneficial than face-to-face contact.Forest and Wood studied whether people with low self-esteem used Facebook differently from people with high self-esteem, and whether people with low self-esteem were viewed any differently by others.
In their study, people with high and low self-esteem had similar numbers of friends and status updates. However, the people with low self-esteem included less positive words and emotions, and more negative words and emotions in their status updates. These were rated by a group of coders- unconnected students who did not know the experiment’s hypothesis.
Another group of coders were asked to rate each status for “likeability”: whether they would want to spend time with the poster, whether they liked the poster, and whether they would want the poster as a friend. For Facebook statuses, more negativity meant less likeability. This could mean people with low self-esteem accidentally handicap their efforts to connect with others, as they are more likely to post negative statements that don’t help them socially.
However, this was rated by strangers, not by friends. So looking at how people’s friends respond to their positive or negative statuses will hold more importance for real-life experiences.
For people with high self-esteem, who generally posted positively, negative statuses were greeted with sympathy and social attention. However, people with low self-esteem were often ignored when posting negatively, instead receiving the most attention for their positive posts.
This means that even though people with low self-esteem think Facebook will be a safer method of socialising, they may not actually get any benefit from it. If only their positivity is rewarded, they may feel like they need to hide their negative feelings or force themselves to be different. This could potentially worsen their self-esteem instead of helping it.
Knowing that, the next question is whether anything can be done to break that self-esteem cycle.