Social media is, of course, far from being all bad. There are often tangible benefits that follow from social media use. Many of us log on to social media for a sense of belonging, self-expression, curiosity, or a desire to connect. Apps like Facebook and Twitter allow us to stay in touch with geographically dispersed family and friends, communicate with like-minded others around our interests, and join with an online community to advocate for causes dear to our hearts.
Honestly sharing about ourselves online can enhance our feelings of well-being and online social support, at least in the short term. Facebook communities can help break down the stigma and negative stereotypes of illness, while social media, in general, can “serve as a spring board” for the “more reclusive…into greater social integration,” one study suggested.
But Parker and Palihapitiya are on to something when they talk about the addictive and socially corrosive qualities of social media. Facebook “addiction” (yes, there’s a test for this) looks similar on an MRI scan in some ways to substance abuse and gambling addictions. Some users even go to extremes to chase the highs of likes and followers. Twenty-six-year-old Wu Yongning recently fell to his death in pursuit of selfies precariously taken atop skyscrapers.
Facebook can also exacerbate envy. Envy is nothing if not corrosive of the social fabric, turning friendship into rivalry, hostility, and grudges. Social media tugs at us to view each other’s “highlight reels,” and all too often, we feel ourselves lacking by comparison. This can fuel personal growth, if we can turn envy into admiration, inspiration, and self-compassion; but, instead, it often causes us to feel dissatisfied with ourselves and others.
For example, a 2013 study by Ethan Kross and colleagues showed quite definitively that the more time young adults spent on Facebook, the worse off they felt. Participants were texted five times daily for two weeks to answer questions about their well-being, direct social contact, and Facebook use. The people who spent more time on Facebook felt significantly worse later on, even after controlling for other factors such as depression and loneliness