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Does Facebook Cause Depression? Depends On How You Use It

Another day, another Facebook-makes-us-sadder study. This time, it's from the University of Missouri, and it comes with a key caveat: Facebook can make us sadder, the researchers find, but only if you're using it to lurk from afar — to check on how an old acquaintance is doing, for example, without actually engaging that person with "likes" or comments.

Researchers Margaret Duffy and Edson Tandoc are quick to draw a distinction between the good kind of Facebook usage and the bad kind. They found that those who use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, as well as share important events from their lives, do not suffer from symptoms of depression associated with use of the social networking site.

However, as all Facebook users are aware, this is not the only way in which the platform is used. The study found that those who engage in "surveillance usage," comparing the lives of their friends to their own, often experience feelings of envy. In other words: Those great photos from your high school girlfriend's recent vacation in the Caribbean? They're probably making you envious, and that envy could be contributing to feelings of depression.

We've written about studies connecting Facebook use and depression before. A 2013 study from the University of Michigan linked Facebook use with a decline in overall happiness. However, as an article in The Verge pointed out, this study did not have a strict definition of Facebook use. John Jonides, co-author of the University of Michigan study, admitted that he couldn't say why Facebook made his study participants feel gloomy, but he did have a hypothesis. Jonides thought that it was probably the social comparison that was causing participant's moods to sink.

Duffy and Tandoc's new study provides evidence for this theory. It also lends a strategy to the platform's 1.2 billion users. As the researchers themselves reflect, the study encourages social media literacy. As Tandoc puts it, "Users should be self-aware that positive self-presentation is an important motivation in using social media, so it is to be expected that many users would only post positive things about themselves. This self-awareness, hopefully, can lessen feelings of envy."

So if Facebook is making you sad, you don't need to stop using it altogether. Just be mindful of how you're spending your time on the site.

Tajha Chappellet-Lanier is the social media intern at NPR.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
Tajha Chappellet-Lanier