Is Facebook making you miserable?

“My worth is not determined by others. Whether people read my stuff - or not... is unrelated to whether my stuff is important. Facebook is not my measure.”

The above was written by a friend as a Facebook post.  So what is the problem with Facebook? And why might it be making us all more disconnected, anxious and miserable?

First of all, let me acknowledge there are positives about Facebook.  It’s a simple way to share and communicate, particularly when you are geographically distanced from family and friends. It allows you to connect with old friends, it can make you smile and even laugh out loud, it makes coordinating parties and events super easy, and it can make you feel close to loved ones who are far away.  But now I’ve got that out of the way, let’s address the dark side of Facebook, and how it triggers some of our primal fears.

Problem 1: My Facebook Life vs. My Real Life
We all like to post the good pictures and videos of ourselves, and not the less flattering ones. Similarly, we share positive events, stories and experiences far more than we share the less than successful or genuinely embarrassing aspects of our experiences.  I’m sure if you only viewed my life through my Facebook feed, it would appear nothing but picture-perfect.  The reality, of course, is markedly different.  How many times have you seen a happy couple snap on Facebook, only to find out weeks later that the couple have separated?  On the one hand, sharing positive posts may increase the happiness of others – after all, positivity is contagious. We know that being around positive people is good for our health, and breeds positivity. However, if the positive posts make others feel like their life is inferior (even if that is not the intention), then I would argue they only increase comparison, anxiety and a feeling of ‘not good enough’. Facebook lives are not real lives, and they are unrealistic standards to live up to.

Problem 2: Likes = Approval = Self-worth
Who doesn’t like to receive lots of likes and positive comments on their posts?  As social beings, we are extremely sensitive to cues of approval and disapproval from our tribe.  It’s an ingrained survival mechanism to fit in and be liked, and Facebook is the perfect vehicle to both trigger and heighten this innate need.  The simplicity of number of likes or comments appeals to our need for constant approval, making us feel like we belong.  Unfortunately, it may also heighten this innate need for approval, and can potentially become the driver of our behaviour, rather than an assessment of it.  That is, we start to shape our daily activities and choices (e.g. what we eat, what we do) around what we perceive will be popularly received on Facebook.  
Sound ludicrous?  Let’s take a moment to think about when organisations set KPIs (key performance indicators).  The purpose of KPIs is to measure our success.  However, when KPIs are set, time and time again we see they quickly become the ‘driver of behaviours’ rather than simply the ‘measure’.  It’s not too big a stretch to extend this to our everyday life choices.  (Watch Black Mirror on Netflix ‘Nosedive’ episode for a scary future vision of this world!).

Problem 3: Redefining the word ‘Friend’
Facebook has redefined the word ‘friend’ to mean 'someone you want to know about, but you don’t necessarily want to spend time with’.  My experience is that some of our Facebook ‘friends’ are people we knew twenty years ago, with almost no contact since.  Quite honestly, we probably wouldn’t recognise them if we were standing side by side in a queue at the local bakery.  A Facebook ‘friend’ has a voyeuristic relationship with the life we portray, rather than genuine connection and support. That’s not to say that some of our Facebook friends aren’t also genuine real-life friends, but the two are not synonymous.

Problem 4: Control of our Mental Diet
Facebook controls our mental diet – what we see, read and digest, each and every day.  This mental diet constitutes posts, news and advertising, and it shapes our brain connections and neural pathways.  (No, I am not being dramatic when I say this!)  Neurons that fire together wire together, so the things I see frequently and daily are bedded down in the neural pathways of my mind.  That’s why it’s so hard to forget a catchy advertising jingle, even years later.  The eye-opener for me was when I read about an online experiment (published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated of America in 2014, Mar, Vol.111) using Facebook, where member feeds were manipulated to be either predominantly positive or predominantly negative in emotional content.  There were 689,003 participants in this experiment and all were recruited without participant informed consent.  That is, they didn’t even know they were involved in the experiment, nor that their news feed was being manipulated.  

Problem 5: Social Division, Prejudice and Judgement Thrive
Through controlling our feed, and biasing it to our preferences, Facebook divides us and strengthens our natural tendency towards ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Have you ever noticed that you tend to see a lot of things that confirm your existing views, rather than contradict them?  For example, if I like a few anti-Trump posts on Facebook, my feed seems to be dominated by posts that show Trump in a very unflattering light, and portray his supporters negatively. Conversely, if I like a few pro-Trump posts on Facebook, I seem to receive lots of posts that show the extreme positive of Trump, and denigrate anti-Trump protestors.  Facebook heightens our natural tendency to polarise, and to stay fixed in our existing viewpoint.  Today more than ever, I would argue that we need to hear, see and understand different and varied perspectives on many societal issues, rather than simply making our existing views more salient.

The Solution: So is it time to dump Facebook?
So am I still on Facebook? Yes, I am.  Like many people, I have tried several times to remove Facebook completely from my life, but I invariably return after a period of time.  For all its downsides, it is an important tool for me to keep in touch with family and friends, and never more so than when I am overseas.  However I do try to keep in mind that what I see through Facebook is the same as living on a diet of ‘beer and chocolate’, and limit my consumption with the above in mind.  I’m also trying to provide a little more balance in my Facebook posts, to show the good, the bad and the ugly that are part of our natural life experiences.

This blog is part of a series written while travelling overseas on a gap year with my husband Jay, my son Hayden, and my daughter Bronte.  It’s a challenging, daunting and at times extremely rewarding journey to open our minds and hearts, and to come home more capable than we left.  From a business perspective, it is an opportunity to gain a new perspective to make Within Consulting a stronger and more unique organisation which can support our diverse and varied clients into the future.

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or Miriam Yates at miriam@withinconsulting.com.au.