'Facebook envy' associated with symptoms of depression

Behind the Headlines

Thursday February 5 2015

Used in a positive way, social networks can lessen depression

Facebook is the world's largest social network

"Facebook can cause depression in people who compare themselves with others," The Independent reports. A new study has examined the relationships between Facebook use, feelings of envy, and feelings of depression.

Researchers surveyed more than 700 US university students, aiming to look at the relationships between the extent of Facebook use and feelings of envy and depression.

Importantly, it found the extent of Facebook use in itself was not associated with depression symptoms.

However, increased Facebook use was associated with feelings of "Facebook envy", such as feeling envious when seeing photos of old friends on luxury holidays.

Increased feelings of envy were then associated with increased symptoms of depression.

The relationship between feelings of envy, Facebook usage, and symptoms of depression is likely to be a complex one, and overall the study does not prove a cause and effect relationship.

The idea that spending increased time looking at the posts of Facebook friends could contribute to feelings of envy, which could in turn lead to feelings of low mood, seems plausible.

But there are likely to be many other unmeasured factors that are also having an influence. These could include personal characteristics, lifestyle and physical and mental health.

If you are prone to envy, Facebook may not be the social network for you. Why not try Twitter, where, as we discussed last month, people often post "angry tweets" unlikely to provoke any feelings of envy.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Bradley University and the University of Missouri in the United States. No sources of financial support were reported.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Computers in Human Behavior.

Overall, the UK media's reporting was generally accurate, though many of the headlines failed to make it clear that Facebook itself did not cause depression.

In fact, "Facebook envy" was the main mediator of any link – but many other unmeasured factors are likely to be having an influence.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study based on a survey of US college students, which aimed to investigate the association between Facebook use, envy and depression.

In it, the researchers discuss the various traumas surrounding the transition to college life for young adults, including moving away from home, gaining new freedom and forming new relationships.

They report how a previous study found US adults aged 18 to 24 are likely to suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly college students.

As the researchers say, multiple factors are likely to contribute to this, but they state that, "policy makers and scholars have hypothesized that heavy use of online social networks such as Facebook and mobile technologies may contribute to the phenomenon".

The researchers aimed to look at whether or not heavy Facebook use among college students could lead to depression, and the factors that may influence this relationship.

What did the research involve?

In the background to their survey, the researchers first of all present a literature review, where they discuss studies that have examined various theories.

This review does not appear to be systematic in that no methodology is provided, so we can't be sure that all relevant research into these issues has been considered.

The researchers first of all discuss various studies that have examined what is called "social rank theory" – a theory that depression is a result of competition, where humans, like other animals, compete for food, mates, and resources.

They also discuss research covering the evolution of Facebook, "the most popular social networking site". 

They then discuss studies that have looked at the mental health of college students, and introduce the theory of "Facebook envy" as a lead-up to their questions:

  • What is the relationship between frequency of Facebook use and depression among college students?
  • What specific uses of Facebook predict Facebook envy?
  • Does Facebook envy mediate the relationship between Facebook use and depression among college students?

The study is based on an online survey of 736 college students from a large mid-western university. All participants were taking journalism courses. The majority (68%) were female, identified themselves as White American (78%), and the average age was 19 years.

The researchers asked participants to report the average number of hours a day they spend using Facebook. They also asked them to rate how often they did the following, using a five-point scale from (5) very frequently, to (1) never:

  • write a status update
  • post photos
  • comment on a friend's post
  • read the newsfeed
  • read a friend's status update
  • view a friend's photo
  • browse a friend's timeline

They then assessed envy by asking people to rate on a similar five-point scale how much they agreed with the following statements:

  • "I generally feel inferior to others."
  • "It is so frustrating to see some people always having a good time."
  • "It somehow doesn't seem fair that some people seem to have all the fun."
  • "I wish I could travel as much as some of my friends do."
  • "Many of my friends have a better life than me."
  • "Many of my friends are happier than me."
  • "My life is more fun than those of my friends."

The researchers assessed depression symptoms using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) scale, reported to be one of the most commonly used measures of depression. The responses were analysed using statistical software.

What were the basic results?

The researchers found the following:

  • There was no significant direct relationship between Facebook use and depression symptoms.
  • There was a significant relationship between Facebook use and feelings of envy – those reporting heavier use reported stronger feelings of envy than those with lighter use.
  • Relationships between Facebook use and feelings of envy were not influenced by the number of Facebook friends a person had.
  • There was a significant relationship between Facebook envy and depression symptoms. In analyses adjusted for age, gender, time spent on Facebook, and number of friends, increased feelings of envy were significantly associated with increased depression symptoms. Envy was said to account for around a quarter of the variance in depression symptoms.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

Addressing their question of whether Facebook use is depressing, the researchers say: "It is not – unless it triggers feelings of envy."

The effect of depression when using Facebook is mediated by feelings of envy. When envy is controlled for, Facebook use actually lessens depression.

Conclusion

Overall, the results of this survey of US college students show Facebook use in itself is not associated with depression. However, increased Facebook use was found to be associated with "Facebook envy", and envy was then associated with depression symptoms.

The study does have various strengths. The researchers carried out statistical tests to ensure their sample size was adequate to address their questions, and also assessed depression symptoms using a validated scale.

With regard to the study design, they researchers say that,: "Since this study explores relationships among Facebook use, envy and depression, the survey method is appropriate."

While it is true the survey design can explore relationships between these factors, this is all it can do. The study still cannot prove direct cause and effect relationships.

There are likely to be many other unmeasured factors also having an influence on the extent of Facebook use and feelings of envy and depression, including personal characteristics, lifestyle, and physical and mental health.

There are also some further limitations to the strength of the findings. For example, questions on frequency of Facebook use and feelings of envy were all rated on five-point scales.

Though this is likely to be the only available (and most appropriate) method to assess these factors, it can still introduce error, as frequency can mean different things to different people.

For example, one person could reply they use Facebook "very frequently" when they look at it every 10 minutes, while another person could consider very frequent use to be looking once a day. Similarly, the questions about envy will also lead to a highly subjective response.

It is also worth noting that although the researchers used a validated depression scale in their study, they have only carried out statistical analyses looking at relationships between frequency of symptoms, frequency of Facebook use, and frequency of envy. They have not looked at actual diagnoses of depression.

The study also includes a selective sample of young university students from the US, all of whom were taking the same courses. They may not be representative of other population groups.

Overall, the general theory that spending increased time looking at the posts of Facebook friends could contribute to feelings of envy, which could in turn lead to feelings of low mood, seems plausible.

However, many other factors are still likely to be mediating this relationship in different individuals.

This study will contribute to the growing body of literature assessing the possible health effects of social media use. 

If you find yourself troubled by envious thoughts that lead to symptoms of depression, you may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy. Arguably, envy is an unhelpful pattern of thinking that brings you no benefits, but plenty of grief.

Our Moodzone area of the site contains podcasts and resources that may help you tackle patterns of unhelpful thinking.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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Moodzone: Unhelpful thinking

Dr Chris Williams helps you to replace negative thoughts with more positive thinking. This podcast is one of an eight-part series for Moodzone.

Media last reviewed: 02/03/2015

Next review due: 02/03/2017

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