You Are What You Feed

facebook-peeking-100026441-galleryWhen people find out I don’t have Facebook, they always look so puzzled. “Why not?” they ask. It’s been two years since I deactivated my account and, yet, I still can’t find a coherent answer to this question. More times than not, I respond with an “uhhh” until somebody eventually changes the subject. I do think Facebook is oftentimes useless … but is that why I no longer use it? Did it make me feel lonely? Was it just an overall bad feeling that accompanied my perusing it? Research certainly suggests that social media does affect our moods and mental health.

FB’s mission is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. FB does, in fact, allow individuals to keep in touch with those in other cities and even distant countries. However, it seems this does not help the shy, the lonely, or those with low self-esteem feel a sense of belonging, despite initial speculations of its positive effects on these populations. Because these individuals do not self-disclose as much in person, researchers initially believed that shy people might share their thoughts online because it is less awkward than face-to-face interactions.

Based on these predictions, Dr. Amanda Forest and Dr. Joanne Woods at the University of Waterloo conducted a psychological study on low self-esteem individuals. The results supported the idea that participants with lower self-esteem saw FB as a safer place to express themselves than did individuals with high self-esteem. Low self-esteem individuals also saw more advantages to disclosing their thoughts and feelings on FB over in person. Given this view, Forest and Woods then investigated whether or not people with low self-esteem actually did use FB to better their social lives and achieve intimacy in their relationships. Their results suggested that although low self-esteem individuals see FB as a safe place, they do not use FB more than those with high self-esteem. Further, participants who posted negative updates on FB were “less liked” by other facebook users.

Given these results, is FB really living up to its mission? Maybe not as a whole, but the Wash U Confessions page is certainly trying to build on FB’s “power to share.” The administrator for Wash U Confessions hopes to create a place where people can “turn off their filters and not worry about being judged for their honesty.” The admin states that “when so many people are posting pictures and statuses about how great their lives are, it isn’t always easy to speak up and admit that…life isn’t going so well.”

Regardless of the outlet Washington University in St. Louis students have gained through the confessions page, Frontiers’ informal campus survey still suggests that most students’ moods are negatively affected by FB as opposed to positively affected or not at all affected. I know I tend to feel a little down when I look through the Wash U Confessions page, specifically. This seems to be a common sentiment, as one post on October 27 said, “The new Wash U Confessions profile picture is really depressing. Please change it … We need that sunny background to counteract these oft-depressing confessions!”

Additionally, many students on campus have expressed a dislike for Wash U Admirers, a page intended to provide uplifting words and flattery; instead, it is regarded as a rite of passage on our campus. Recently, a friend of mine came up to me holding his phone screen so close to my face I couldn’t recognize what he was showing me. “I finally made it!” he screamed as I noticed there was a new post about how he is “the most attractive guy on campus” – which, by the way, I find to be a lame compliment since, according to Wash U Admirers, every guy is the most attractive guy around. Still, this instance showed me just how much we value receiving admirer’s posts on our campus.

Even when people do get mentioned in a post on Wash U Admirers, they aren’t always completely satisfied. One survey respondent points out that “the one time [she] received a post [she] had mixed feelings – ‘yay, I’m so popular’ and ‘meh, the post just says I’m a nice person, nothing about how I look.’” Being positively affected by an admirer’s post is not a certainty and, instead, appears to be pretty difficult.

What happens to those who don’t “make it”? In the words of a Wash U Confession-er from November 22: “You know its a little thing, but it kind of sucks to be a senior and never have received a Wash U Admirer’s post. And I know that normally when people post this some kind souls offer to write one for them if the person messages them, but for me that kind of defeats the purpose.”

Maybe there exists a reason for why FB users are sometimes saddened by perusing it, aside from the confessions and admirers pages on our campus. In June, FB revealed that the company had altered over half a million user feeds, making them primarily positive or negative at random without user consent. The researchers found that moods were contagious; those who saw more positive posts also posted more positively and those who were exposed to negative posts appeared more pessimistic in their posts. Unless these similarities in posts are due to a desire to fit in, FB users’ moods are being affected by other posts.

So is my answer to the inevitable ‘why not’ question simply that I was a depressed college sophomore with low self-esteem and needed to delete my Facebook account to be happier? Did I just have a lot of friends who posted negatively? I don’t know but I can tell you that the change did make me happier regardless of where my baseline was beforehand. Think about how important Facebook and other social media outlets are to you. Reflect on how they affect you and be honest with yourself. At the very least, be mindful of how FB might be playing with your mind.


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