When last week Mark Zuckerberg announced the major overhaul to Facebook’s algorithm, he explained it with his company’s aim to ensure people’s connectedness and “well-being” when using the platform. As per “research”, he put it, people feel happier and less lonely when actively engaging with their friends online, and less happy when passively consuming information such as posts from pages. Based on that, in the very near future we will start seeing more posts from our friends and communities and less content from publishers such as media or brands.
That may look noble on paper, but it blatantly disregards a fundamental psychological phenomenon: envy. People feel bad not because they scroll through some random links or ad videos on Facebook (they may feel bored or entertained, instead), but primarily because they see their friends‘ content.
Numerous studies have shown that Facebook use causes a decrease in well-being, and envy has been pointed out as the main culprit for that. A study published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2015 examines envy in light of the social rank theory. Facebook users compare themselves with others, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and subordination, as the platform is largely about promoting one’s positive self-image. The constant comparison causes envy, which consequently leads to feelings of depression. However, if envy is controlled for, according to the study, spending time on Facebook may actually lessen symptoms of depression.
But how do we control for envy? For example, Facebook has introduced features such as Snooze or Take a break to enable users to hide content from certain people without “unfriending” them. Whether having to censor one’s own feed makes the experience on the platform enjoyable is another question. As advanced as the Facebook algorithms are, there is no way to predict what type of content could trigger feelings of envy. We cannot just “hide” everyone either: something is bound to show up and disturb our equilibrium. Besides, people feel envious of their closest ties, of friends with similar background, which is exactly the group they interact with most often online. That is because from the evolutionary standpoint envy arises as an emotion to motivate us to balance the resources in our community. So when those friends get even more newsfeed visibility, with all their vacation photos, life events and witty status updates, there will be more opportunities for comparison and users’ well-being will likely plummet in result.
In his statement Zuckerberg righteously makes the point that passive social media use is linked to a decreased sense of well-being – numerous studies have shown that online lurking puts people in a higher risk of psychological distress. Still, some 70-90% of all social media users remain lurkers – they follow, but never interact or create original content. How exactly seeing more posts from their friends will prompt lurkers to engage remains unclear.
Engagement itself is an umbrella term that has pretty controversial effects on well-being. One example: although research suggests that receiving virtual support in the form of likes could be good for our mental health, one study found that people with lower sense of purpose in life may actually feel worse when their updates don’t receive a “sufficient” amount of likes. Another study discovered that some types of engagement such as “liking” or updating one’s status lead to a statistically significant decrease in well-being. Also, it may all depend on the people we interact with: this study suggested that receiving comments from close ties is associated with improvements in well-being, while simply viewing friends’ status updates and receiving “likes” were not. This all makes it very hard to evaluate whether users experience “meaningful social interactions”, as Zuckerberg put is.
In the end, the effects of social media depend largely on our personality. This study published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2016 analyzes how self-esteem and effortful control affect well-being in social media users. The results show that the detrimental effect of passive social media use on subjective well-being can partly be explained by decreased self-esteem – that is to say, people with lower self-esteem tend to feel worse after “lurking”. Moreover, individuals with higher effortful control can shift their attention away from potential risks more efficiently than people with lower effortful control, and are better at regulating negative emotions such as envy when passively using social media.
To sum up, it is hard to imagine that the expected changes in Facebook’s News Feed will enhance users’ overall well-being and will ensure that “the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent”. Limiting content from publishers and pages more likely serves a business goal or another agenda, although Facebook is keen to justify the move with oversimplified conclusions from existing psychological research.