I remember when the debate or sermon topic from the classroom to the pulpit was about the television. Was the television bad or good? Alas, we realize now that we probably wasted time and energy talking about a medium the moral value of which had nothing to do with its functionality or design but about our own motives and purposes. Fast forwarding to today the topic is the social media. Like the television, social media can be used for better or for worse, revealing aspects of ourselves, including our deep desires and hidden agendas. So, when Steers et al. published their findings in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology about Facebook and its link to depression, its revelation did not surprise me at all. In their article, “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage Is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” the researchers revealed that Facebook could have detrimental effects on our well being, especially if we are struggling with our emotions already.
Facebook and its link to depression
When I interviewed Danen Kane, worship leader, song writer and singer, I was intrigued that he linked Facebook to his struggle with depression. Danen felt that Facebook fed his negative emotions. On what grounds you may ask? According to Steers and team, Danen’s connection is well supported: “Many individuals on Facebook may be sharing only positive and/or self-enhancing news but not fully disclosing their daily struggles in order to appear more socially desirable.” When we frequently view these portrayals, they tend to further generate negative vibes within us because we tend to think that we are alone in feeling negative emotions, the study explains. The study also goes on to state that “this emotional pluralistic ignorance combined with Facebook social comparisons based upon their friend’s highlight reels, could potentially provoke or exacerbate negative emotions and cognitions, and thus, contribute to greater depressive symptoms.” Steers et al. make it clear that Facebook does not cause depression but rather contributes to its symptoms.
The danger of comparing ourselves with other
Theodore Roosevelt warned that, “comparison is the thief of joy”. While Facebook allows us to connect with family and, particularly, friends, we have to be mindful that it is a platform that “gives us information about our friends that we are not normally privy to, which gives us even more opportunities to socially compare,” Steers and his team state. As social beings we are naturally vulnerable to falling in this trap. Comparing ourselves to one another seems innate, for “whether one is on Facebook or interacting face-to-face,” the inclination to compare oneself is strong. These social comparisons can range from the number of likes or comments one receives on a post to secretly gloating over a friend’s mishap:
More generally, an individual may engage in social comparisons on Facebook by comparing the number of likes or comments other people have posted to their status updates relative to their peers. However, individuals may also make specific social comparisons after viewing a particular friend’s pictures or status updates. For example, a recent divorcée might feel worse about being single after seeing an acquaintance’s recent engagement photos posted on Facebook (upward social comparison). People might also engage in social comparisons on Facebook in order to feel better about themselves. For instance, a man may temporarily feel more confident after reading a status update about his friend’s failing grade on an exam for which he earned an “A” (downward comparison).
What’s wrong with this picture?
Studies on social comparisons in the traditional context (face-to-face) have been going on for years. But it is only recently that we are discovering the effects of online social comparison on our health. Our brains are being rewired. In other words, we are slowly being cooked like the frog: put the frog in hot water and it immediately jumps out. Put the frog in water and gradually increase the temperature and it eventually is cooked without knowing (my apologies to all the frog lovers for the use of this example). Our relationships are much the same; that is, they are slowly being changed, particularly in the way we interact with one another. Being aware of these changes and the potential effects the social media, such as Facebook, can have on our lives is the beginning of protecting our health and well being. Yes, “Teddy” was right: “comparison is the thief of joy”. But there is an even larger overarching principle that should govern the way believers use Facebook and other forms of social media. Believers are commanded not to covet. The word “covet” in the Hebrew (avah awvaw) means desire, incline, wish, want, lust. When our desires, wants or wishes are based on what we think others have, we tend to become dissatisfied and eventually unhappy with our own life rather than thankful. It is the attitude of gratitude that is the key to our living a life filled with joy and that qualifies us to receive more. So what does God have to say about Facebook? “Do not use it to covet; use it to show gratitude.”