Facebook the Discourager

October 7, 2013 — 18 Comments

facebookIt turns out networking on the dominant digital community, Facebook, may have a gloomy downside. A recent study of young adults found that the more time they spent on Facebook, the sadder they became. (A link to the peer-reviewed study appears below.)

The researchers ominously warn, “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Most readers of Mere Inkling possess social networking accounts. In light of that fact, we will have a gut reaction to this allegation, invariably based upon our own experience.

Some will assume, I don’t get depressed reading posts on Facebook, so that study must be wrong.

Others may think, I can see how everyone’s reports on their achievements could discourage a friend whose life isn’t progressing nearly as well. In fact, some of us may have read about the accomplishments of our peers and felt a nagging pang that we don’t quite measure up.

To be fair, the problem doesn’t lie with Facebook per se, it’s a consequence of the human condition. No matter how self-confident a person appears, there is a seed of insecurity within each of us. Christians would trace it back to humanity’s fall, but whatever its source, we innately recognize that we are not the true masters of our own destiny.

Even if we make every choice afforded us correctly, there are accidents, diseases, whims of genetic imperfection and assorted other things that remind us of our vulnerabilities.

It is not actually our insecurity that creates the dynamic where Facebook can become a great discourager. The cause is more insidious than a mere awareness of our own dependency.

The reason we are saddened by the success and happiness of others—even those we love—is due to envy. That’s an ugly word, and it’s not something we want to foster in our lives. In fact, whenever it rears its head, we strive to crush it with our heel.

The truth is that most of us subconsciously experience this feeling far more often than we are aware. It could, for example, be as simple as longing for a sporty new car or muscular new truck like the one that just passed us on the road . . . or wishing that our makeup accented our features or our clothes flattered our bodies as nicely as someone we passed on the sidewalk.

Envy can be especially evident at events like high school class reunions. As the decades pass, it becomes simpler to contrast the (external) accomplishments of classmates who once shared seemingly equal opportunities.

You can find envy everywhere, even (God forbid) in churches. That’s why James included the following in his letter to the Church.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. (James 2:1-7, ESV).

In an essay entitled “Democratic Education,” C.S. Lewis noted, “Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand.” Lewis also included it in his description of the damned.

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. (The Screwtape Letters).

Facebook doesn’t cause us to envy, it merely offers us the frequent opportunity to hear about the joys of others and wish we experienced the same. (Far be it from us to ponder the fact that our acquaintances seldom write about their own disappointments, insecurities, or worries.)

There’s really only one way to reduce the influence of envy in our lives. It comes from understanding how truly precious—how intensely loved—we are, by our Creator. When we understand that he loved each of us so deeply that he was willing to allow his only begotten Son to die in our place . . . only then can we comprehend that we need envy nothing.

Confident in that merciful love, the murderer Paul of Tarsus was able to rest in God’s forgiveness and write:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11b-13).

_____

The study, “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults,” is available through the Public Library of Science here.

18 responses to Facebook the Discourager

  1. 

    Honestly, it’s just work for me. I don’t enjoy most of it. I’ve had a strange facebook troll-stalker, and as a teacher and youth worker, much of my wall is teenage-soaked. It’s just not all that interesting to me.

    • 

      Personally, I have appreciated being able to reconnect with some old friends, but the main value is keeping up with events in the lives of “extended family.” People I care about, but with whom I never have any physical contact.

      The troll sounds pretty creepy. Could be a book somewhere in that story…

  2. 

    What you say may certainly be part of why Facebook seems to have a negative effect on people’s well-being, but it seems to me that there are a few other major factors. One is that people, online, are often nastier than they would ever be face to face. Normally reasonable, personal people who get into some debate can turn truly vicious. Watching that cascade day in and day out is one of the reasons I rarely go on FB anymore.
    Another issue, which I faced as an internet addict, was that I sank into the internet world so deeply that my emotional state revolved around responses from my friends. Talk about a sickness. That, alone, can undermine well-being because we are not meant to live locked to a screen.

    • 

      You just identified two other powerful negative effects of serious online social networks. I’ve seen both of these and neither is pretty. Not only do debate turn uglier than they would in person, they do so very quickly.

      I thank God from delivering you from your addiction. The internet would be a terrible Master to be enslaved to.

      • 

        I do thank him, and it was. I still have to be careful, but now that I’ve seen it for what it is, and I have been re-acquainted with the joys of face-to-face interaction with the world, it is a lot easier for me to see the warning signs of a resurgence and to walk away.
        I pray for other people about this too. A lot of people suffer from it without realizing it.

  3. 

    Thank you for ending this post on such a beautiful note!

    I admit that envy is the sin I most contend with, and yes, it is insatiable–I am now living the consequences of giving it free rein for too long. I love my friends and love using Facebook to keep up with them, but I recently deactivated my account for a while. I do struggle with comparing myself to others, and I thought it would be a good idea to remove at least one of the tools I use for that. I have to say, the longer I go without FB, the less I miss it. I do plan to go back on FB at some point, but I’m trying to use the intervening time to wrestle with my envy a bit and develop a healthier approach to social media.

    But I certainly agree that social media, and Facebook specifically, does not *cause* this problem of discontent. That stuff is well entrenched in human nature, and if it didn’t emerge through FB, it would show up in some other way.

    • 

      Thank you for sharing your personal struggle. I know from personal experience what you’re saying about the sense of “sacrifice” or loss growing less acute the longer you are away from the problem. As, since we both know the medium itself isn’t the problem, there’s no reason not to return to it when you are confident that you are in charge and it is nothing more than a tool.

  4. 

    Amen! Preach it, Brother. Drifting through life like a jellyfish is going to have surprising unpleasant consequences for sure.
    I never bothered with facebook et al. until starting to build my platform. I joined a homeschooling bloggers group on facebook and stopped paying any attention to what the other mommies were writing very quickly because I couldn’t possibly measure up.
    For me, it helps knowing they would never dream of taking on the skeptical scientific community like I do, so we’re just different.
    My pastor’s wife got off facebook just because it was wearing her out emotionally. When you look at risk factors for depression, you find positive things like new job, marriage, and baby right along with the negative ones. Facebook presents the opportunity to experience these highs and lows far more than our natural surroundings would normally provide.
    Of course, if you come to my facebook page, you’ll find nothing but encouragement and reminders of God’s awesomeness, so I don’t want everyone to give up just yet!

    • 

      Yes, facebook is an important beam in the platform we build today to spread the news. As for your comment about engaging in a challenging arena, it reminds me how grateful I am that Christ’s Body has all of its different members. For example, my wife as a sped teacher who delights in assisting her students with their most rudimentary and even their basic hygiene needs. I wouldn’t last in that environment for two days.

      As for the toll of stress. Yes, it’s eye-opening to learn that good events can contribute to being overwhelmed when we tend to only worry about problems. (Eustress and distress have a cumulative effect.)

  5. 

    Facebook makes me sad because I joined it to interact with others, yet find that 75% of my online friends never log on, never update their statuses, never comment, never interact in any way with me or anyone. It feels like a rather lonely place most of the time where the only people who bother to participate are the ones I have real-world communication with anyway so what is the point of the online platform? I sometimes wish I had other people’s social media problems of too much interaction with too many people, too many messages to answer, too many events to attend, and so on. I guess I have an envy problem just like everyone else. :-/

    • 

      I suspect your experience is the more common one, Lisa. Many people are encouraged (pushed) into setting up a facebook account in the way I succumbed to setting up a twitter feed. Then, because it wasn’t really their own desire, it lies dormant. You’re not alone in having many contacts who never update their pages.

      Besides, I truly believe its better to have a small group of friends that vast legions of acquaintances.

      • 

        Also, the fact that many people do value and seek a high FB friend count leads to their accumulating a vast legion of acquaintances, people they neither know nor trust enough in whom to confide any real news of themselves or their lives. Hence the endless bragging and puffery so often seen on FB.

        I, too, would rather surround myself with a very small group of people who have a real interest in and concern for me than hundreds of “friends,” fans, followers or other hangers-on.

      • 

        This suggests to me what it must be like for someone “famous.” You would have so many people wanting to be close to you to sort of bask in the reflection of your fame. It’s crasser, I suppose, when it’s about money (e.g. how “popular” a person becomes to those who have tenuous relationships with them when they win the lottery).

  6. 

    A post certainly worthy of Fresh Press. So many would feel so much better if they read this.
    Facebook is useful tool. Unfortunately it’s grown and become an intruder in some people’s lives. Like jubilare says, because it can be anonymous, bad stuff can and does creep in. A goldmine for stalkers – a nightmare for victims.
    And as you discussed, there’s the “everyone is doing better than me” (although much of what is posted may be facade/staged to impress).
    Must be really difficult for parents with kids setting limits/keeping an eye on their kids’ Facebook entries, comment, and time spent.
    Solid post

    • 

      Yes, the problem with useful tools is that they can become destructive in the wrong hands. And there are always people ready and eager to corrupt new discoveries for their own purposes. When I was thirty, I was still terribly naive when it came to believing what people said. Due to my own ultra-honesty, I assumed that when people told me something (unequivocally) that they were speaking the truth as they knew it. In that sense, I know how exaggerated a “facade” most people present.

      • 

        I tend to believe people are generally good, truthful, and fair, too. Some harsh awakenings. As a result, Facebook is probably not for me….and blogs shoudl be approached with caution?
        Really praying for the county right now. DIfficult times.

  7. 

    I won’t offer any insights because yours and the ones in the comments are so on target. I’ll just say that I found myself at a certain point sitting in front of Facebook at midnight, trolling for something to read from someone, wishing someone would be on there. I realized that was not a healthy place to be, and I quit using it for awhile. When I finally did start using it again I decided that I was simply not going there again. I appreciate Facebook as a place to get news of friends I don’t hear from often. Unfortunately, way too many of the posts involve photos of scones or bagels someone is eating, so I focus on the ones that fall under the category of what I consider “real communication.” In my mind, that’s something worth calling up a friend to tell them, and I’m not quite desperate enough for social interaction to pick up my phone and call a friend to tell them I’m eating a bagel! :)

    • 

      Some people do tend to enjoy posting the trivial. However, I appreciate being able to hear significant things (e.g. vacationing with grandkids, facing surgery, etc.) so that I can celebrate and/or pray with people I know and care about.

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