On social media making us sad.

Recently a friend made a comment to me that made me think the online social media presence I have been crafting for myself didn’t match the reality of my life. The comment was about how my PhD journey was fun and now it was time my life got less fun. In my mind it, it’s the opposite – I limit my time on Instagram because I’m quite sure everyone else is having a way more fun life than me eating their Insta-worthy food or attending a Pinterest-worthy wedding. And what a strange perception about my PhD, my loved ones would easily agree I have sacrificed a lot and foregone a lot of fun times, now it’s coming to the time where I should actually be able to have some fun. The PhD journey is difficult, high-pressure, and isolating. So… what happened? I guess I didn’t broadcast on my social media when I was having a bad day, when experiments weren’t going well, when I was super broke. But I did occasionally post photos of smiling friends, pretty sunsets, and interim achievements. The online portrayal of my “good times” had evidently been making this commentator feel bad about their own reality. So I decided to research the following question:

Social media – convenient way to stay in touch or the root of life dissatisfaction?

Have you ever felt empty after browsing a social media site? A study by Kaspersky Lab of 16,750 people found that social media users can feel a range of negative emotions after spending time on a platform, ultimately outweighing the positive emotions felt by frequenting a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram. I think there are a couple reasons why we sometimes feel a negative emotion associated with use of social media.

False Reality.

Social media has given us an unprecedented window to see into the lives of our friends and family. The window is immediate, unlimited in terms of numbers of times that information can be shared, and mixed medium (i.e., not just words describing an experience but pictures, videos, sounds). We can now get closer to feeling the experiences of others. But the question is – are we actually getting closer to experiencing the real lives of our closest friends?

It’s more likely that you’re seeing a highlight reel. Given how we all acknowledge that our friends and family have a limited attention span (8 seconds, shorter than a goldfish), we generally try to stick to posting the important stuff (and some of us stick to posting the stuff we know will get the most likes – I’ll talk about that later). A study of British social media users admitted that three-quarters were lying to themselves on their social media profiles. 31% said their pages were fairly accurate except the boring items had been removed. Is what we see from our friends actually representative of reality? A study from 2015 found that women between the ages of 16-25 spent an average of 16 minutes trying to perfect a selfie – totaling 5 hours per week. How is that reality? It’s no wonder some may call into question that what they see online is real.

Seeing friends exaggerate their own reality puts pressure on everyone else to keep up. The pressure of having to be liked can lead to a race to the bottom in terms of self-representation accuracy. But faking it can have serious mental health consequences and result in a hit to one’s self-esteem and lead to feelings of isolation. Rarely do we see a more balanced social media profile: today was a mediocre day, sun was shining but the salad I ate was soggy. There’s a reason for this: negative posts get some reaction, often support from friends, but generally receive less attention (especially over time) and are therefore less successful. Research has found that long-lasting moods (depression, happiness) can transfer through social networks through emotional contagion. Because no one wants to feel depressed by reading a list of sad posts, likes tend to flow towards more positive posts. This provides an explanation why people tend to favour (i.e. like) positive posts more, leading to a bias towards sickly sweet praise of one’s boyfriend or over-the-top shout-out to a best friend. So next time you see someone with a selfie that clearly took them an average of 16 minutes to get right, just think – it’s not their fault! It’s the race to the bottom of accuracy of information and we are all in the process of crafting our online presence.


According to the Kaspersky study, when people see their friends posting about the amazing vacation they just went on or the hobbies they get so much joy from, they are left feeling like their friends are, frankly, enjoying life more. They found that 59% of respondents reported feeling unhappy seeing images of a party to which they were not invited, and 45% reported feeling low after seeing holiday pictures posted by their friends. This comparative nature of social media can have a strong negative influence on the typical social media user.

But why? Why can’t we just be happy for our friends? One explanation comes down to our societal reliance on social norms to set behaviour. Social norms are the behavioural rules that are considered acceptable by society, or smaller groups in addition to cultural or societal expectations. Social norms represent an individual’s sense of what they think they should do and what others think they should do. They establish what normal is, deviation from which can lead to social punishment such as group exclusion.

We look outwards to our community to understand what these behavioural expectations are. Social norms are a powerful behavioural tool and are especially potent when looking to understand a new environment. At the heart of the grip held on our behaviour by social media is the comparison between ourselves and the norms expressed in our community. Oh Susie goes to many parties and posts about it, should I be going to many parties and posting about it too?

What does it mean to fall short of those behaviour norms in the context of social media?

Some have called this the compare and despair phenomenon in that sitting at my desk in total daily isolation seems like a personal failure in comparison to my fun-loving friends who are seemingly constantly traveling the world with some sort of amazing lighting crew and a hair and make-up team. I will never be as pretty, have so much free time, have that ability to style my own hair that way. It can also elevate a sense that we are missing out (FOMO – fear of missing out). I am only in my 20s once, am I not doing it right by spending most of my days in front of a computer? Even though I love to see my friends having a great time enjoying life, it’s hard not to internalize that observation, especially when I’m quite sure Instagram is proof that everyone is eating better food or having way more fun laughing with their friends than me.

The thing is that you aren’t even competing exclusively against your online connections, it turns out you are also competing against yourself. 37% of respondents in the Kaspersky study reported feeling down looking at memories they themselves had posted in the past, citing the main reason that their life now is not as interesting as in the past. Yikes!

Variable Rewards.

Social media has some of the same properties as gambling. In fact, social media has been shown to be more addictive than cigarettes. Why? The like button. Among other things…

There is a sense that the more likes or shares you have, the more exciting (or less exciting) your life is, the more attractive you are, the more popular you are, etc, etc, etc. The sense of validation that comes with likes is exceptional because it is a true social feedback measure that you are recognized as successful in your community. This is a true reward. Likes are associated with the release of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasurable feelings. With two billion likes a day and one million comments on Facebook, there is a lot of dopamine flying around.

But the powerful effect of likes can also be addictive thanks to variable rewards. Variable means that the outcome isn’t certain – you could post something and it gets 10 likes or you could post something and it will fetch 100 likes. You refresh your Facebook to see if you got more or more likes. You post something new to see if you’ve “won”. Variable rewards keeps you taking your phone out of your pocket, posting more, liking other people’s posts so they like yours, and continuing to play the game. Sometimes you win and feel great and sometimes you lose and feel sad.

The results are in: social media can make you sad.

A study found that for every 1 extra like, there was a 5-8% decrease in self-reported mental health. So let’s do a few things:

  • Educate yourself: acknowledging that social media can govern behaviour is the first step in making a change. Figure out what impacts your use of social media.
  • Accuracy: is representing your true authentic self important to you? Adjust your social media presence accordingly (note: in an appropriate way. Maybe don’t post about your cat obsession on LinkedIn).
  • Balance: have a good, solid mix of both online and in-person interactions.
  • Limit: if you notice yourself feeling negative, understand social media plays a part and limit your interaction with certain platforms.

Social media offers lots of great advantages for modern life. But it can also be dangerous. Social media isn’t going anywhere soon, so be careful out there and equip yourself with the tools to navigate this tricky new world.


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