Social Media Distortion


By Samuel Greengard

One of the ongoing problems with social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram is that they create an illusion of friendship and intimacy when—and where—they don't exist. As I've noted previously, these sites have a tendency to make friends seem like acquaintances and acquaintances seem like friends. They also lead us to believe that other people live far more interesting and exciting lives than we do.

Glance at Gia Allemand's Instagram page and you will get a pretty good idea of how utterly deceptive things can be. The 29-year-old reality TV star and model, who recently committed suicide, appears to be deliriously happy in various photos. She's beautiful, she's smiling, she's hanging out with friends. It looks as though she is leading a dream life.

So much for that theory.

By now, it's apparent that social media sites mask a lot of sadness and emptiness. But a recent University of Michigan study also found that Facebook use correlates with considerably higher levels of unhappiness. Ethan Kross, an assistant professor of psychology, studied 82 young adults and found that those who use Facebook more often are likely to feel sadder than those who spend less time at the site.

Other studies have uncovered similar results. It seems that viewing a steady stream of posts and photos from colleagues, buddies, frenemies, ex-spouses and others—smiling and gallivanting about town—may lead to social media distortion. In 2012, Hui-Tzu Grace Chou, an associate professor at Utah Valley University, found those who spent more time on Facebook thought others were happier and had better lives. They also disproportionately believed that life is unfair.

About a month ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. After enduring a day or two of FOMO (fear of missing out), I realized that I had suddenly grabbed back major chunks of time and mental energy—and actually felt better. It was like coming off a steady diet of fast food. The more junk you eat, the more starved your body is for nutrition—and you wind up getting heavier but not healthier.

Actually, Facebook, Instagram and others aren't the fundamental problem. Like other electronic devices, tools and sites, it's how we use them that matters. Technology brings out both the best and worst in people. But, as we venture further into the digital age, it's wise to recognize that the virtual world does not replace face-to-face human interaction.