Depression due to social media?

In social networks, everyone shows their wonderful life but passive social network user tend to compare themselves with others and are in danger of developing depressive symptoms. A team of psychologists from the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) has looked further into this.

Passive users often believe that others “have it better”

In social networks, everyone shows their wonderful life. For those only looking around, self-esteem can easily suffer, because arguably, everybody is better than themselves. Users who passively use social networks, i.e. those who do not post themselves, and tend to compare themselves with others, are in danger of developing depressive symptoms. A team of psychologists from the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) led by Dr. Phillip Ozimek has looked further into this.

The question of whether the use of social networks can trigger depressive tendencies has been answered contradictorily so far. The researchers from RUB have carried out one experimental and two questionnaire-based studies. In the first study, they had two groups of test subjects write out information about the first five people they saw for five minutes either on their Facebook pinboard or on the staff website of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the RUB. A third group skipped this task. All three groups then completed a questionnaire that provided information about their self-esteem.

"It has been shown that the confrontation with social information on the Internet - which is selective both on Facebook and on employee information pages - leads to lower self-esteem," reports Phillip Ozimek. Since low self-esteem is closely related to depressive symptoms, researchers see this short-term effect as a potential source of trouble.

Over 800 test subjects

They examined the long-term perspective by means of questionnaire studies. They interviewed over 800 people about their Facebook use, their tendency to compare themselves with others, their self-esteem and the occurrence of depressive symptoms. It was found that there is a positive correlation between passive Facebook use and depressive symptoms when respondents have an increased need for social comparisons. "If I have a strong need for comparisons and see on my homepage that others have great holidays, make great deals, buy expensive and great things while I see the cloudy weather outside from my office, it lowers my self-esteem," Ozimek sums up. "And if I experience this day after day and over and over again, this can reinforce higher depressive tendencies in the long run.

In a third study, the researchers used questionnaires to find out whether their findings could also be transferred to other networks. Because professional networks work somewhat differently, they opted for Xing. "Although they also have a “glossed over§ profile, they try to be as authentic as possible, while positive as possible," explains Phillip Ozimek. The results of the evaluation were very similar to those of the Facebook study.

The type of use is decisive

"Overall, we were able to show that it is not the use of social networks in general that leads to or is related to depression, but that certain preconditions and a certain type of use increases the risk of depressive tendencies," says Ozimek. Private and professional social networks can favor higher levels of depression if users are mainly passive, compare themselves with others socially and these comparisons have a negative impact on self-esteem.

"It is important that this impression that everyone is better can be an absolute fallacy," says the psychologist. "In fact, very few people post negative experiences in social media. However, the fact that we are flooded with these positive experiences on the internet gives us a completely different impression.

Phillip Ozimek, Hans-Werner Bierhoff: All my online-friends are better than me - three studies about ability-based comparative social media use, self-esteem, and depressive tendencies, in: Journal Behaviour & Information Technology 2019, DOI: 10.1080/0144929X.2019.1642385