It’s Not If You Use Social Media, But How You Use It, That Impacts Your Wellbeing

Social media has its pros and cons. While it can bring people together and connect others over long distances, it can also encourage unhealthy behaviours like comparison. A study out of the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus has looked at what’s most important to achieve overall happiness, and found it comes down to how people use social media.

Associate professor of teaching in psychology at the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Derrick Wirtz, looked at how people use three social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — and how this can impact their overall wellbeing.

“Social network sites are an integral part of everyday life for many people around the world,” Wirtz said. “Every day, billions of people interact with social media. Yet the widespread use of social network sites stands in sharp contrast to a comparatively small body of research on how this use impacts a person’s happiness.”

A particular cause of unhappiness due to social media use was social comparison. Researchers found that the more people compared themselves to others on social media, the less happy they felt overall. Using these applications passively was also found to increase the occurrence of comparison as well.

“Viewing images and updates that selectively portray others positively may lead social media users to underestimate how much others actually experience negative emotions and lead people to conclude that their own life — with its mix of positive and negative feelings — is, by comparison, not as good,” Wirtz said.

“Passive use, scrolling through others’ posts and updates, involves little person-to-person reciprocal interaction while providing ample opportunity for upward comparison.”

Study participants were asked about four functions within Facebook including checking the news feed, messaging, posting a status or picture updates and catching up on world news. According to Science Daily, the most frequently used function was passively checking the news feed with participants often using Facebook without directly connecting with others.

The research, which was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, also found that people tended to use social media more when they felt lonely, and for study participants, time spent on social media actually increased feelings of loneliness. In fact, the more participants used any of these platforms, the more negative they reported feeling afterwards.

“The three social network sites examined — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — yielded remarkably convergent findings,” Wirtz said. “The more respondents had recently used these sites, either in aggregate or individually, the more negative effect they reported when they responded to our randomly-timed surveys over a 10-day period.”

But, according to Wirtz, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to social media. The way you use it has a big impact on your wellbeing and when you interact with others on these platforms, you’ll generally feel better and won’t experience the negative effects of the apps.

“If we all remember to do that, the negative impact of social media use could be reduced — and social networks sites could even have the potential to improve our well-being and happiness,” Wirtz said. “In other words, we need to remember how we use social media has the potential to shape the effects on our day-to-day happiness.”

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