For some of us, checking Facebook is part of the daily routine, either first thing in the morning or first thing at work. And that first check usually kicks off many return trips throughout the day. It's definitely a part of our consciousness, and a big part of how we connect with others.
But research is finding that it may not be the healthiest habit, psychologically speaking: It can actually make us feel worse about our lives, instead of better, and ironically make us feel less, instead of more, connected to the people around us.
Whether it's time to quit or cut back is of course up to you. But playing around with finding the healthy "dose" may be a good idea. Here are a few ways in which social media is not so great for our mental health:
1. Facebook won't help your friendships
A new study by University of Oxford researchers looked at how social-media friendships differed from face-to-face friendships. The number of friends people have on social media can far exceed their number of friends in the flesh--but the number of true friends we can go to when a crisis strikes is virtually the same online and offline, suggesting that there's a cap on the number of confidants we can maintain. So more isn't necessarily better.
"There is something paramount about face-to-face interactions that is crucial for maintaining friendships," says study author Robin Dunbar. "Seeing the white of their eyes from time to time seems to be crucial to the way we maintain friendships." Relying on social media to keep your relationships alive simply won't cut it.
2. Facebook is linked to depression
A number of studies have tapped into this connection, but research last year in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology finally sussed out why it exists.
The research showed that what mediates the connection between Facebook and depression is our tendency to make comparisons between ourselves and others--and it doesn't matter whether a person is making "upward" or "downward" comparisons. Just judging one's own circumstance in relation to others' seemed to be the missing link between Facebook and feeling depressed.
As the study authors point out, long before the age of virtual social networks, Theodore Roosevelt said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." And that's certainly true in the age of social networks.
3. Facebook is linked to jealousy
This is an obvious offshoot of the one above: Facebook has been linked to our descent into an ugly spiral of jealousy and envy. And this isn't too surprising. When we're constantly confronted with images of our friends' lives, which are apparently brimming with promotions and vacations, it's only natural that we'd feel jealous.
The problem is that this is a wholly inaccurate perception of what's going on. But seeing others' victories makes us want to promote our own all the more, which leads to a vicious cycle.
4. Social media may bring out the negative parts of ourselves
Not only can our mental health suffer in a general way, but Facebook may shine a light on our existing negative personality traits. A study last year, for instance, found that people who post more updates about their personal achievements tend to be more narcissistic, while people who have lower self-esteem may accumulate more friends to compensate.
And Facebook may feed the problem, rather than address it. Says study author Tara Marshall, regarding narcissists, "it could be that their Facebook friends politely offer support while secretly disliking such egotistical displays."
Similarly, people with low self-esteem may not benefit from accumulating friends on Facebook, since they're often peripheral acquaintances who won't really offer the social support that people with low self-esteem need. The bottom line: Though Facebook may spotlight our negative traits, it won't really do anything to fix them.
5. Social media may be an addiction unto itself
Not surprisingly, social media can be hard to get off of once you start. Like any behavioral addiction, our use of Facebook--or whatever our site of choice--can take on a life of its own, as we idly open it up in our free moments, or whenever we need a distraction or entertainment.
Some researchers have written about the fact that such behavior can have eerily similar characteristics to drug addition, with craving, tolerance, and withdrawal as common signs. Whether it's a true addiction remains to be seen, so you'll have to judge for yourself whether you're in control of Facebook or it has control of you.
The Right Dose
So is it a good idea to quit social media completely? One study last year from the Happiness Research Institute found that people who quit Facebook reported being both happier and more in the present moment. After a week of Facebook abstinence, they even reported higher life satisfaction. They also enjoyed reductions in worry, sadness, loneliness, and depression.
If you're not ready to quit completely, try taking a little breather from it and see what happens. If it works, keep going. If it doesn't, maybe a little here and there won't hurt. Just don't let your whole existence hang on what your Facebook friends are doing, and how many "likes" your posts accumulate. There's definitely more to life than that.