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It’s no secret that there’s a downside to social media websites like Facebook — anyone who’s felt inadequate after scrolling through friends’ exciting status updates can attest to that.
And science backs up what a bummer this can be: There's ample research linking negative feelings with time spent on Facebook, and a new study suggests it's the act of comparing yourself to others on the social network that might fuel those “depressive symptoms.”
“For instance, if you were logging onto Facebook and you just broke up with someone, but your friend just posted about her engagement, you might feel worse about yourself because you’re single,” study author Mai-Ly Steers of the University of Houston told TODAY.com.
But, wait — don’t go deleting your account just yet. Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness,” shared these tips for how to use social media in a healthy way.
1. Clean up your friends list
If there’s a certain person whose profile you’re always browsing — maybe an ex? — and you realize you never feel that great afterward, you should consider removing that person as a friend on Facebook.
“If you can do it in a way that your friend doesn’t get upset or notice, I think that’s a great idea,” Lombardo said.
2. Stop using the word ‘should’
It might not sound like much, but it’s a red flag, Lombardo warns.
“When you get on Facebook, pretend you have a microphone in your brain,” she said. “If you catch yourself saying, ‘I should look like that’ or ‘My kids should be doing that, too,’ immediately stop. You’re judging yourself and comparing yourself to others.”
3. Balance digital time with real-life connections
Lombardo suggests making sure you’re not spending more time online than you are with real friends.
“Meet a friend for a dinner or go for a walk with someone,” she said. “Even just texting a friend directly can be a really powerful thing.”
Steers, the researcher, adds that people should be using Facebook for its intended purpose: making connections, not browsing other people’s vacation photos until you feel bad that you’re stuck at work.
“I don’t think Facebook or any social media is innately good or bad, but it depends on how the person is using it,” Steers said. “It should be a fun, positive experience. If you’re finding it’s a negative experience, then it’s probably time to step back and reevaluate whether you should be using it as frequently.”
She clarified that her research doesn’t prove Facebook causes depression, but only suggests a link between use of the social network and depressive or sad feelings.
4. Shift to a win-win perspective
If you’re struggling with FOMO (“fear of missing out”) or can’t stop comparing yourself to your friends on Facebook, it’s time to change your mindset, Lombardo said.
“It’s not a win-lose experience,” she explained. “Just because someone is thin doesn’t mean you’re fat. Just because someone is doing well in their business doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Adopt more of a win-win perspective.”
“Another thing to consider is why you’re comparing yourself,” Lombardo added. “It’s a great opportunity to say, I have some opportunity to work on my own self-confidence and self-worth. So when we see someone posting something like, ‘My husband surprised me and took me to Paris!’ we can be happy for them, because we don’t view that as an attack on our own character.”
Steers’ research, recently published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, is the latest in a string of studies that point to a negative aspect of Facebook, but there's also research that shows social media brings us plenty of joy, too.
Social comparison is nothing new — the theory has been around since the 1950s, and people have long compared themselves to photos in magazines, friends at parties and strangers on the street. The Internet just provides us another opportunity, Steers said: “I just think that now in the digital age, we know more about people’s lives than ever before, which gives us more opportunities to social compare.”
So be mindful on Facebook, and focus on making connections and catching up with old friends (and not gawking at those engagement photos).
This story was originally published in April 2015.