“Hell is other people,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in 1944. It seems that when it comes to social networks, that statement still rings true. For example, researchers in Italy found that social networking sites have a significant negative effect on personal well-being. Or, to be tabloid-like for a moment, Facebook makes you sad.
This shouldn't be surprising, and the problem is unlikely to be confined to Italians. Social networks morphed rapidly from simple tools for engaging with distant friends to brand marketing platforms where the product is, in every sense, the user. Potential employers and even potential life partners will check out profiles before deciding whether or not to proceed. Under such pressure, it's not surprising that most people accentuate the positives online while hiding the negatives.
This can have a corrosive effect. Everywhere we look online we see apparently successful, confident people. We're virtually surrounded by overachieving narcissists. In an attempt to keep up we polish our own lives, posting exaggerations about our best moments and either hiding the awful ones or couching them in archly ironic terms in an attempt to be amusingly clever.
All of this serves to widen the gap between our real selves and the personae we portray online. It's a desperate and somewhat pathetic craving to be liked. Hardly going to make us feel great, is it? And it's even worse if we fail to engage: passively browsing other people's social media feeds is particularly bad.
Meanwhile, the social networks themselves are making billions of dollars out of us by mining our personal data and using it to sell us stuff we don't need. That knowledge just gives you a warm, fuzzy glow of, well, happiness – doesn't it?
But hang on: the findings of these studies aren't quite so straightforward. Social networking can have a positive impact on self-reported happiness, as long as it's used to enhance physical interactions. In other words, don't just interact with your friends online: use social networking to plan physical meetings with them. You could do that just as easily with an email or a phone call, of course, but let's take the rehab process one step at a time.
In-person communication is far more rewarding due to body language, eye contact, physical contact (such as a hug or a handshake), shared experiences and even pheromones. None of that can be effectively replicated online, no matter how many 'friends' you believe you have.
Social networking is particularly damaging for self-reported well-being when it comes to social trust. To put it another way, social networks increase our dislike of other humans in general. It will always be hard to tease out exactly why, but perhaps it's partly because social networks expose us to a wider cross-section of humanity than we would otherwise experience. Even with confirmation bias firmly engaged, we still connect with more varied people online than we might expect to in person. Then there's trolling and abuse, which are much more prevalent online than in real life, due to the effects of detachment.
“The overall effect of networking on individual welfare is significantly negative,” says the Italian report. That statement is even more dramatic than it sounds. It's surprisingly hard to modify someone's baseline happiness level: even lottery wins and bereavements tend to only shift the needle for a year or two. After that, we revert back to our personal happiness mean. For social networking to knock happiness consistently downward is quite an achievement.
As someone who has never had an account on Facebook or similar social networking sites, these reports ring true anecdotally. Friends and acquaintances who use social networking extensively seem more prone to anxiety, pessimism and lower self-esteem, though correlation doesn't imply causation. Still, organisations blocking social networking at work are probably doing their employees – and themselves – a favour by helping to lift happiness levels.
I really wanted to end this rant with a call to tear down the walls of social networking sites, but sadly that's not practical. Like so many other aspects of human behaviour, short-term gain wins out over long-term benefits. From sex to drugs to social networking, most of us are just wired for that instant hit of gratification.
But even opioid addicts can give up their bad habits, with a little help. So, for those of you who want a happier life, try looking up from your phones and keyboards more often. Smile and talk to someone near you. Initiate more real-life conversations. In short, get out there and meet people.
Who knows? You might even start liking humans again. Take it from me: they really aren't so bad – once you get to know them in person.