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Do Facebook 'Likes' Mean You're Liked?

Why social media popularity doesn't necessarily translate into the real world.
Image: woman holding up mobile for selfie
Studies show that frequent users who do most of their social posting on weekends are more likely to be depressed and lonely. Tara Moore / Getty Images

Facebook can make a birthday extra awesome. Even the most resistant lurker might be tempted to lift their comment controls just once a year to rake in the well wishes. And why not? Facebook makes it super easy to remember birthdays — and even easier for people to wish you well.

It also makes it easy to keep in touch with old friends and people you care for, but can’t see in 3D that often, for whatever reason.

The thing is, Facebook also makes it a little too easy to substitute a quick click for a more personal and meaningful gesture, like a phone call, a text or an invite to hang out.

Karen North, Professor of Digital Social Media and Director at the USC Annenberg School, says, even as fantastic as it is to receive good tidings at all, social media birthday wishes can be something of a double-edged sword. “It is extremely easy just to say a quick, impersonal ‘happy birthday’ and get that sense of closure, but that does not mean that we have conveyed our true wishes and caring to the person,” she says.

Social Media Encourages Voyeurism, Hinders Intimacy

Stunted connections on social media between “friends” don’t just happen on birthdays. Social media apps like Facebook have made it so easy to communicate, we barely do it by other any other means anymore. “People spend time peering into the lives of their friends, reading posts and updates, looking at photos and feeling that they are ‘catching up’ with that friend yet, frequently, people do not engage with that friend,” says North. “They don't comment or message. They don't pick up the phone to connect. So rather than using Facebook to deepen the friendship, we sometimes observe our friends, rather than show them that we care.”

Rather than using Facebook to deepen friendship, we sometimes observe our friends, rather than show them that we care.

This false sense of intimacy makes it easy to question whether your acquaintances are really friends, and vice versa. Plus, passively scrolling and witnessing fun you aren’t a part of or privy to can fuel FOMO, says Dr. Erin Vogel, postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at UCSF. “Scrolling through other people’s posts and photos can give users a sense that they are missing out. They see other users interacting with each other, and pictures of people connecting with friends and family in real life, while not actually reaping the benefits of social connection themselves,” she says.

Are we becoming more like voyeurs than active participants in each other’s lives? If so, this may be why studies show avid Facebook users are prone to depression and low self-esteem. “We feel lonely because the experience of looking at people without the interaction or validation sometimes makes us feel rejected or ignored, or we just feel that our friends are not treating us like friends,” North says, adding. “Yet we are doing the same to them by looking without interacting.”

How Scrolling Affects Our Mental Health

Yet, it’s so easy to get hooked on these two-dimensional conduits of communication. Why? One study found that internet addiction stimulates the same reward systems in the brain that heroin does — and yes, excessive use of social media, or “microblogging,” has been qualified as internet addiction because it can cause people to experience legit withdrawl symptoms.

Another way too much Facebook can have a negative effect on mental health: one study, led by Vogel, shows the tendency toward upward social comparison — which means comparing yourself to someone who seems to be better off than you — accounts for much of the negative impact of Facebook overuse on self-esteem.

When scrolling through posts from hundreds of acquaintances, it’s easy to forget that social media does not tell the full story of someone’s life.

The irony is, these comparisons and assumptions can be way off base because there’s usually a lot more to a person’s life than what they let you see on Facebook. “People tend to present the most positive aspects of their lives and personalities on social media. When scrolling through posts from hundreds of acquaintances, it’s easy to forget that social media does not tell the full story of someone’s life,” says Vogel.

On the flipside of this equation are those who use social media to feed a compulsion to broadcast their innermost personal thoughts and feelings about everything, on the daily. One UConn researcher recently measured the risk of social media addiction by how often you feel compelled to post. If you post once on weekdays, you might not be in as deep as someone who posts all weekend.

Another study, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, found “vulnerable narcissists” to be more prone to social media overuse, qualifying vulnerable narcissists as those with “a defensive sense of grandiosity that is associated with low self-esteem, shyness, and hypersensitivity.”

Why We Should Use Social Media Actively

One reason these oversharers keep on sharing is because social media makes it super easy for others to offer their support without any real, meaningful investment of time. Also, they may be better writers than speakers, or don’t have to decipher social cues for what people may be ready and willing to hear. “It may be that people who experience anxiety from social interactions tend to view social media as a safe way to interact with others, and therefore do most of their self-disclosure and social support seeking on social media,” says Vogel.

For whatever reason, if you feel like your fondness for Facebooking makes you feel more often worse than better, you can always cut down or quit. Denmark researchers revealed the more you use Facebook, the happier you are when you give it up — even if just for a week.

Or, you can choose to interact with people on social media with realistic expectations and in moderation. Says Vogel, “Social media has the most positive effects and fewest negative effects when people use it actively (like communicating with others or posting content, rather than passively browsing) and when they focus on close friends’ posts. When we focus on acquaintances, we tend to forget that their lives are not as perfect as they may seem.” Most importantly: “Social media is best used to enhance offline friendships, not substitute for them.”

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