man on public transportation staring at his phone
All those vacation pictures other people post can make us feel crummy when faced with the reality of our day to day lives. Facebook suggested a solution PHOTO: Alex Iby

Facebook released a report earlier this month which, among other things, found a link between online interactions and improved well-being. While it would be hard to imagine the company reaching any other conclusion, the report provides an even-handed critique of the role social networking plays in human well-being and happiness.

The Facebook report references a host of research studies which analyzed the value of social networks. One study, co-written by the Facebook research scientist who also co-wrote the Facebook report, itemizes the benefits accrued through (online) social interactions. Those benefits include:

  1. Need to belong: Humans have a need to belong to a group. Social interactions can strengthen the feelings of belonging.
  2. Maintaining friendships by staying in touch: Social interactions reinforce the feelings of friendship, which contribute to happiness and well-being.
  3. Social support: The perception that friends will be around when needed. Social interactions increase the connections between people that can spur engagement in times of need.

According to Facebook's latest report, these (and other) benefits can be achieved through increased use of online social networks, like Facebook.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The report however, recognizes the dark side to social networking. People use social networks like Facebook to compare themselves with others, and they tend to feel worse for it. Part of this has to do with the kind of news people share online. Research published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology shows people tend to share positive news, in order to present themselves in a self-enhancing way.

This explains why you see so much positive news being broadcast on Facebook. The title of a 2011 Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin article, “Misery has more company than people think: underestimating the prevalence of others' negative emotions," pretty much says it all.  

Viewing other people’s positive news makes you overestimate their happiness and underestimate their difficulties. In other words, seeing people skiing in the Alps while you sit in traffic, late to your kid’s PTA meeting, makes you feel worse — a lot worse. This is not an academic finding. Multiple studies (such as Steers et al and Chou and Edge) have shown viewing these kind of posts leads to depression, the Facebook-inducing variety we have become all too familiar with since the rise of the social network.

What does Facebook extrapolate from these findings? While admitting how you use Facebook has a lot to do with how you feel, the report concludes that “interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse.” In other words, "the more you interact on Facebook, the better you will feel."

In my opinion, this is where the report goes awry, by confusing two distinct factors: first, how close you are to people in your network, and second, how active you are on Facebook. To understand the benefits you can derive from using Facebook, you need to examine each of these factors independently.

Friend or Facebook Friend?

Back in the 1970s, Harvard sociologist Mark Granovetter popularized the concept of strong and weak ties in social networks. Strong social ties are those that exist in relationships with family and close friends, with whom we have frequent and meaningful interactions. Weak social ties are those we share with people with whom we have infrequent, superficial interactions. These ties exist in the real world as well as in online relationships, like Facebook.

Most of us maintain both kinds of relationships on Facebook. We have strong ties with close family and friends, many of whom live far away and for which Facebook is a godsend for staying in touch. And we have weak ties with "Facebook friends": the old high school buddies, work colleagues and potpourri of other folks whose ‘friendship’ requests we were too embarrassed to decline.

We relish seeing videos from a close friend’s wedding or photos from a parent’s birthday celebration, especially when we can’t be there in person. For these situations, Facebook helps us share the happiness (or sadness) of important life events and helps us maintain and strengthen strong social ties.

On the other hand, we all know the depression of seeing yet one more post from those with whom we share weak ties, like the jerk who is always mountain climbing in exotic locations, the post from our ex who has found nirvana since ending our relationship, or the posts from the work colleague whose children are consistently winning scholarships while excelling at every activity they undertake. This is the last thing we want to see while we contend with mind-numbing jobs, complicated relationships and children with real challenges. No wonder we are depressed.

Facebook: Active vs. Passive Participation?

The second factor highlighted in the Facebook report has to do with a person’s level of participation on social networking. The paper concludes “ it's how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being … when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward …. On the other hand, actively interacting with people … is linked to improvements in well-being.”

It’s impossible to ignore the self-serving nature of this conclusion, but it holds some truth … if we decouple the two factors contributing to well-being (or depression).

Keep Your Friends Close, Keep Your Facebook Friends … Away

The first conclusion I reach from reviewing the research is people do derive social benefits from keeping in touch with family and friends with whom you share strong ties, whether in-person, over Skype, or using Facebook. And the more connections you have, the better you will feel and the deeper your relationships will be.

The second conclusion is reducing (or eliminating) interactions with your "Facebook friends" is a really good idea, especially during the holidays, because posts from these folks are not about real connection, they are intended to make themselves feel better and make you feel worse. The following cartoon says it all:

Facebook friends do not equal friends
PHOTO: Bizarro comics by Dan Piraro


For the most part, these aren’t friends who will be there in times of need. Rather, they are people looking for more "Likes" from you to feel better about themselves.

Make Facebook Work For You This Holiday

My advice for the holidays is to cull your list of Facebook "friends." You don’t have to unfriend them. Simply tailor your feed to include the people you really care about … and ignore the rest. You will likely be happier and find Facebook offers you real social value at holiday time — to share experiences with those you can’t be with.

Ignore those jerks broadcasting pictures of themselves sipping margaritas in the Bahamas. And remember, if they had real lives, they would be sharing it with the people around them, rather than wasting the opportunity to enjoy their holiday by trying to impress people they barely know online.

wink emoji

Happy holidays! And be sure to friend me on Facebook!