Twenty years ago, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University did a study to see how Internet use affects how people feel. The Internet was still pretty new. Think early chat rooms. What they discovered was something they called the "Internet Paradox." Despite the fact that the Internet as a technology was both social and communicative, people who used it a lot felt "diminished family communication" and greater loneliness.
"In the nearly two decades following, the study has been criticized for its small sample size and thin assertion of causation where there was perhaps only correlation," writes Leslie Anne Jones in the Daily Dot. "A similar problem plagued studies of television, by then a much more familiar medium: Does watching television make people lonely, or do people watch television because they already are lonely?"
In the last 20 years, technology has changed quickly. And that technology has changed how we live and work in profound ways. There has been research into how these changes affect our psychology, but, as Jones points out, the research is often trying to hit a moving target. Do we use technology because we feel a certain way? Or do we feel a certain way because we use technology?
Many Americans use social media for several hours every day. What is this doing to our nation psyche? Are we more socially connected than ever? Or are we lonelier than ever?
Jones writes, "Our culture is pervaded by a sense that for everything we've gained, something has been-is being-lost."
Does Facebook make us depressed? Does it makes us cheat on our spouses? Does it keep us from thinking deeply? Or does it allow us to become our best selves? Several psychological studies have explored these questions.
Facebook and Depression
Do you feel like your life isn't as cool or interesting as your friends' lives? Do you feel that way especially while you are reading your Facebook newsfeed?
In 2012, 16 million Americans suffered a major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That's almost 7% of the U.S. population.
"That Facebook and depression are linked is the conclusion drawn by a raft of recent studies, but why and to what extent is less clear," writes Jones. "Anecdotal and scientific evidence points to Facebook's facilitation of social comparison, not just to our friends' lives but to a curated and positively skewed representation of them."
To decide if Facebook might contribute to depression, first it might be useful to think about the evolution of depression.
One theory is that depression evolved as a problem solving strategy. This idea, called the analytical rumination hypothesis, suggests that despression might exist to allowthe depressed person to "focus our attention on socially complex problems," says Charlotte Blease, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist at the University College Dublin.
Another theory, called the social competition theory, is that we have an involuntary depressive response when we observe that other people are doing better than we are. "In premodern times, the function of this was perhaps to help avoid bodily harm meted out by dominant members of the community," writes Jones. This theory might explain why looking at Facebook could make you depressed. You might feel like you should submit to the social dominance of your cousin who is posting photos of her social success.
Charlotte Blease published an article that suggests that this might very well be the case. "It may be that spending too much time immersed in pictures and status updates leaves us with the impression we are being socially out-competed," writes Jones. "This might trigger feelings of sadness and dysphoria, even if that impression is inaccurate: Most people aren't on Facebook trumpeting life's struggles and disappointments."
Has Facebook Changed Love?
We've all heard the stories about how Facebook makes it easy to reconnect with your high school crush. Maybe too easy. We've also all heard about how now social media is commonly brought up in divorce proceedings as proof of infidelity.
But is there science to show that this is real?
In the 1990s, Nancy Kalish, Ph.D., did a study looking at what happened when teen romances were rekindled. What happens if high school sweethearts break up but then get back together 5 or more years later?
"I knew teen romances were important, for those teens who have romances, but I didn't think the reunions years later would work," Kalish said. "But that's why you do research-to discover new information."
It turned out that these rekindled relationships were surprisingly successful. "Among those studied, she found that 72 percent of reunited couples were still together when surveyed, and 78 percent if they had been first loves," writes Jones.
Most of the people in the study had contacted an old flame after divorce or the death of a partner.
Later, in the age of Facebook, Kalish published a follow-up study.
The fact that Facebook makes it so easy to reconnect with an old flame changed the demographic of Kalish's study. "In 2006, 62 percent were married to someone else when they reconnected, and only a sliver (5 percent) left their marriages and married their first love," writes Jones. "Infidelity though, was rampant."
It turns out that staying connected to romantic partners from your past might not be great for your present relationship.
Do we spend less time these days thinking? It certainly looks like it when you notice that everyone is on their phone checking Instagram.
People like be stimulated. And sitting and thinking is not stimulating, it seems.
Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Virginia did a study where he asked people to sit and think for 6 to 15 minutes alone in a lab. His subjects also had the opportunity to give themselves a mild electric shock.
So the choice was: thinking or a negative stimulus.
"During the allotted 15 minutes, 67 percent of men and 25 percent percent of women chose to shock themselves at least once-even those who'd said earlier they would pay $5 not to receive another shock," writes Jones.
For some, negative stimulus beats no stimulus at all. How does this related to social media use? If you have a few empty minutes, there are a lot of different ways you could use it, but for many, a little stimulus is what we'd like. So we check Instagram.
Are We the Same People on Social Media as We Are in Real Life?
Are our identities the same online and offline? How does the way we portray ourselves online affect how we really feel about who we are?
It seems like we try to increase our social desirability with what we post on social media.
Sociologists at Temple University published an article on online identity construction. What did they find?
"While people also used many different kinds and qualities of photos for their profile shots and albums, they all evinced social desirability: People posted way more group photos than solo shots. Photos tended to imply people were well-connected," writes Jones. "The final commonality was well-roundedness. Most users' accounts showed a variety of activities and interests. People did not want to be defined by a single factor."
On Facebook, we try to be popular, thoughtful and well-rounded. This is an idealized identity. Maybe what we hope to be or hope to become.
"In real life, many, or most, of us are not popular, thoughtful, and well-rounded, but we'd like to be," writes Jones.
There is a feedback loop though between our social media selves and our real selves. As we perform an identity, we begin to feel like we are that person. Maybe Facebook provides a stage for us to "fake it 'til we make it."