Does logging onto Facebook make you feel sad, as if everyone's having fun but you? Maybe you're just overestimating how happy your friends are. New research out of Stanford University suggests when we misgauge our friends' negative feelings, we feel worse about ourselves.
In a study published in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers examined how college students evaluate their own mood and that of their peers. The research demonstrated students greatly underestimated other people's negative emotions, which in turn increased their own feelings of unhappiness because they felt "less normal."
Lead researcher Alex Jordan, a social psychologist who now teaches at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, explained some people tend to focus on the negative aspects of their own lives while focusing on the positive aspects of other people's lives. "People think, 'Why am I alone on a Saturday night or why I am not in a relationship?'" he said. "When people overestimate the happiness of friends, they felt more negatively about their own lives."
Jordan and his colleagues asked 80 Stanford freshmen to report if they or their peers had recently experienced various negative emotional events such as a distressing argument with a friend, or positive events, such as a high grade. The majority of the freshmen continually underestimated how many negative experiences their peers were having.
As part of the same study researchers also surveyed 140 Stanford students to find out if they were any more accurate in evaluating the moods of other students. They found that the majority of students were unable to accurately gauge others' happiness even when they were evaluating the moods of people they knew well. Not surprisingly, the more students underestimated others' negative emotions, the more they tended to report feeling lonely.
Although Jordan didn't examine Facebook usage, he believes his study's findings may help explain why some people feel bad after spending time on the social networking site. Some of his friends have spoke to him about how dejected they felt after scrolling through friends' pictures and profiles, an area that he says might warrant further research.
Your Profile Is Better Than My Profile
Junior Kayla Dellefratte from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. logs off Facebook when she begins to feel frustrated with what she is seeing.
"I see one of my friends living life, their own life, and I feel like stalking their photos is like I'm not living," she said. "It's not a great feeling."
Matt Van Dao, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University said, "When I see what my friends are doing while I'm online in the library I start questioning what I'm doing with my time."
Catalina Toma, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin who is currently studying the effects of social networks on a user's well-being, believes passive Facebook consumption (such as monitoring your friends' newsfeeds) can leave people feeling lonelier than before they logged on.
"People naturally compare themselves to those around them, a process known as social comparison. If you perceive yourself to be doing better than your friends in an area that is important for you -- for instance, academic success, getting a job, or being popular -- the social comparison will make you feel good. However, if you think your friends surpass you in an area that's important to your self-concept, you will likely feel dejected as a result of the comparison," she wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com.
But there are several circumstances where people actually feel better after using Facebook.
According to Toma, if users focus on their own profile instead of their friends' profiles sometimes they feel better than they did before they logged on.
"Because of selective self-presentation, we put our best foot forward, or face-forward in the case of Facebook, so by looking at our own profile more, we feel good about ourselves," she said.
Can Facebook Exacerbate Feelings of Loneliness?
Moira Burke, a doctoral candidate in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University says there is no evidence that social networking sites cause unhappiness in and of themselves. She surveyed 415 Facebook users in July 2009 and again eight months later. Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire surveying loneliness, among other factors. In March 2010, the users were surveyed again. Survey responses were then matched with participants' Facebook activity during the eight month period.
By surveying users on how lonely they felt at a single moment in time and comparing their answers to their online activity, Burke found a correlation between passive consumption, like looking at friends' pictures, and loneliness.
"At a single point in time, you can't tell if clicking on feed stories causes loneliness or lonelier people tend to click on more stories. But when we survey people multiple times, we find that the correlation goes away – loneliness isn't affected by consumption," Burke said.
In the study Burke also found engaging with people one-on-one in Facebook can help people feel less lonely.
"We found that overall, the more engaged people are in Facebook, the better they feel," she said.
Burke will discuss her study results at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in April.
In the end, the way we feel when on Facebook (or any other social networking site) most likely depends on our personality traits. In other words, the way we typically view the world also colors the way we perceive ourselves and others on Facebook. It's a concept supported by Burke's research.
"Individual differences in social skills and self-esteem influence how people use social media and the effects those media have on them," Burke explained.
Not surprisingly, in Burke's study, those with lower communication skills are less likely to interact one-on-one, but they feel more of a connection when they do interact on Facebook.
And people with great social skills who are passively consuming other people's news feeds may feel little effect, but for those who find it hard to communicate in person, the news feeds can be beneficial. Those with high self-esteem tend to have more friends.
Kris Ortiz, 22, a Hofstra graduate student studying speech communication, says he feels great after using Facebook.
"Seeing wall posts and messages and 'likes' makes my mood a lot better," she said. "We all want to be remembered and thought about; it's like getting a card on your birthday."
Steven Panzarella, a junior at Hofstra, logs on to Facebook to maintain relationships with friends around the world.
"When I get on Facebook, I'm happy; I'm keeping up with friends and getting a chance to see what they're doing. When I log off, I feel content," he said.
According to Facebook.com there are more than 500 million users and more than 50 percent of the users log into Facebook at least once a day.