Open up your Facebook feed and scroll down until you see an unhappy face on any of your friends. Chances are you’ll be there a while. If you’ve joined Facebook, then you are part of a program designed to hook you onto an infinite feed of people showing off the best aspects of their own lives. Some of the most brilliant coders in the world have designed an algorithm that will keep you looking at other people’s self-told stories for as long as possible. You will see travel photos from places you’ve never been to, relationship statuses from people who look more attractive than you, and grateful reflections from friends who’ve achieved what you haven’t.
When we meet our friends in real life, we get to find out about the rest of the story. We get to know the sad, dark parts that nobody would consider posting about. We learn how they see what’s going on in their lives, rather than what they’d like others to see. But when we add people we don’t really know, or when we fall out of touch with real-life friends everywhere except on Facebook, the reverse happens. No longer do we have context through which to view the stories they present. But the feed scrolls on, and they keep on posting. Over time, we end up remembering the lives of our “friends” as being uniformly happy.
The very concept of a “friend” begins to lose its meaning once it is spread over hundreds upon hundreds of people. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that we have never evolved the ability to form stable social relationships—friendships—with more than about 150 people. Beyond 150 people, we tend to simplify, homogenize, and stereotype our interactions. The average Facebook user’s friend count is 338. Is it any wonder we don’t pay too much thought to the pictures our “friends” paint of their lives?
Faced with the illusion that everyone else is doing so well, it is the most basic human nature to compare. We look at our own lives, our own imperfections, and look for something to blame for our abnormal unhappiness. This toxic cycle of self-judgment is self-fulfilling; it has made us more unhappy. Researchers Hui-Tzu Chou and Nicholas Edge asked 425 American undergraduates: How happy are you? Do your friends have better lives than you? Is life fair? Those who used Facebook more were more likely to say life wasn’t fair, that their friends’ lives were better than theirs. All things held equal, those who used Facebook more reported less satisfaction with their own lives.
It doesn’t help that Facebook and other social media are practically unavoidable. A 2018 report by consulting agency We Are Social estimated that Filipinos spend almost 4 hours a day on average on Facebook. It’s so easy to access free Facebook on any local service provider that “free Facebook user” is a popular political insult used by trolls. In UP, if you are a member of any student org, you need to have a Facebook account to keep yourself posted with org announcements. Many classes post syllabi and assignments on Facebook groups, while some even require social media engagement for their grade.
We have come to rely so heavily on a service that may actively be making us feel worse about ourselves. In a 2017 study titled “Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study”, scientists from the American Journal of Epidemiology found a correlation between Facebook use and deteriorating mental health. A 1 percent increase in likes and shares was connected to 5-8 percent lower self-reported mental health. Those who used Facebook more reported lower life satisfaction, while those who interacted more with real-life friends felt better about their lives. Even physical health was affected- an increase in likes and shares was correlated to lower physical well-being and higher body mass index (read: they were closer to being overweight).
Facebook would have us believe that their service renders the world “more connected”. The assumption is, of course, that all connections are equally valuable. Our generation often pokes fun at the o, kakompyuter mo dyan oldies who always seem to blame technology for all of our problems, but maybe they have a point. The science is showing that the connections we make online can hurt us in real, emotionally exhausting ways.
But the data also show the best cure. Meeting up with our friends, spending time with those we love, telling the ugly parts of the stories of our lives- these are what keep us happy. And sure, while we laugh and cry and tell tales in the best company, maybe one of our other “friends” is having a better time. But if they aren’t there with us, perhaps it’s safe not to give a damn. ■