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Why You Can't Stop Checking Facebook

You know social media is often a depressing waste of time, but you can't stop yourself from visiting. A new study explains why.
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You probably don’t need a raft of academic literature to tell you that checking Facebook can be bad for your state of mind.

But if you were doubting the effects of social media on your mood, there are plenty of studies to enlighten you. Maria Konnikova recently rounded them up for The New Yorker, including findings linking Facebook use to decreased life satisfaction, (ironically) loneliness, and envy. Facebook can even cause trouble within relationships by stirring up jealousy.

Given this depressing litany of effects, why do so many of us find Facebook so hard to quit, then?

Two psychologists at Austria’s University of Innsbruck recently looked into the phenomenon with a series of studies and came up with a simple but compelling possibility as to why we find social media so hard to resist: We’re really bad at predicting what will give us pleasure.

No Meaning, No Pleasure

The researchers kicked things off with an experiment to confirm the existing consensus on social media. Does it really make us unhappy? A simple survey of participants’ moods and recent Facebook use showed exactly what was expected. Browsing the site brought people down.

Next, the team recruited three groups of participants. One group was asked to play around on Facebook, another to browse the Internet, and the last to act as a control and do nothing in particular. All three were then given surveys that measured both their mood and how meaningful they felt the activity they engaged in had been. Facebook not only had a negative impact on mood but was also described as not meaningful by study subjects. In fact, it was this feeling of having wasted time on something utterly pointless that lead to the lowered mood of the Facebook users.

So far, nothing too shocking, but the kicker is the final experiment. For this last study, the researchers asked Facebook users to predict ahead of time how happy going on the site would make them. Turns out, they were wildly optimistic about the effects of social media on their moods.

"Users seem to wrongly predict the emotional impact of using Facebook," one of the researchers, Christina Sagioglou, explained to Fast Company. "It seems likely that users are not aware of the mood-decreasing effects."

How Facebook Deceives Us

People are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy in many areas of their lives, but we may be particularly prone to making errors of this type when it comes to Facebook. For one, the site plays on our fundamental--and very powerful--need for human connection, but there may be additional factors involved. Other studies have shown that actively communicating on social media (say, posting on your wall or responding to someone else’s status update) is generally viewed as meaningful and has no mood-lowering effects; but passively viewing others’ comments and pictures feels empty and depressing. When we start typing Facebook’s URL into our browsers, we’re often recalling active use but only planning to idly browse.

"Basically, it is passive consumption of other people's information that is considered a waste of time and thereby lowers our mood. Less of that thus seems advisable," Sagioglou concludes.

So, next time you’re thinking of popping over to Facebook to clear your head, recall this research to remind yourself just how meaningless you will probably find the experience after the fact. (Plus, there are plenty of better ways to reset your brain with a few minutes of online leisure.)  

Do you suffer from post-Facebook regret?

 

IMAGE: SimonQ錫濛譙/Flickr
Last updated: Apr 10, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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