Aisling Bumgardner lives in Florida, but she was born in Ireland and has lots of family back in Europe. Her mom is one of seven siblings and her dad is one of five, so using social media to stay in touch with cousins, aunts, and uncles is vital.
"Sometimes it would be years in between trips to Ireland. I'd see cousins who I was really close to as a kid and then three or four years later we were teenagers and didn't know anything about each other. Now, I get to see these cousins I love and their kids growing up, dating, and getting married. I would not be able to do that without Facebook," the 29-year-old mom of two shares. She and her husband recently built their own home and she posted photos of the construction, allowing extended family to see the progress.
Yet, the same platform she uses for staying in touch has also created feelings of envy and comparison: "We have young kids at home and they are our priority. I see people's posts and we would love to go on a date whenever or go on a vacation [like them], but that's not in the cards right now. We are definitely in a season of diapers, toilet training, and laundry."
Facebook turned ten in February and experts have been weighing in on the effects of the granddaddy of social media. Like Aisling, for many users Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest provide a way to share life in real time, but recent studies have also found the positive connections tempered by feelings of envy and sadness. Photos, a friend's status change from single to married, and even the number of "likes" and comments on a person's wall can trigger negative feelings.
In one of the more widely reported studies—where participants' loneliness, anxiety, and Facebook use were measured—researchers from the University of Michigan concluded that while Facebook connections temporarily fill a need, over time these interactions may undermine a person's well-being.
Vicki* is in her 50s and has never been married. She is dating a man with children from a previous marriage but her rocky relationship with his children is preventing them from tying the knot. She uses social media to stay in touch with family and friends out of state, but one post definitely stung.
"I have a friend who remarried," Vicki explains. "She posted a picture of her kids and her husband's kids, and they are all holding hands and looking so happy. Then I wonder, Why do I have so many problems with my boyfriend's kids, but the whole Brady Bunch thing is working for her?"
Social media's impact on women
Given that women are generally more relational than men, it is not surprising that the majority of social-media users are female. According to the marketing firm DigitalFlashNYC, women make up 64 percent of Facebook users, 58 percent on Twitter, and a dominating 82 percent on Pinterest. The Pew Research Center reports that among Internet users, women are significantly more likely than men to use Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Additionally, women under 40 take more selfies than men, according to Selfiecity, a project backed by the City University of New York. In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries named selfie the word of the year, due in part to its phenomenal 17,000 percent usage increase in one year and the explosion of selfies on Instagram.
But do women feel the negative effects of social media more than men simply because they use it more or because they are more prone to critically compare themselves to their peers?
Yes to both, says Dr. Andrew Ledbetter, associate professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on the association between social media and relational closeness. "Women are more avid users of any communication; phone, texts, face-to-face," he says. "They are more oriented to connecting with others through whatever means are available. At the same time, there is a culture of comparison that exists on social media and through the mommy blogs: 'Wow, look at the crafts I did on Pinterest; look at the outfit I'm wearing.' From my observation that seems something women are drawn to, but there is a point where it can be damaging to a woman's psyche."
Despite that tendency, Dr. Ledbetter says he would not counsel women to pull the plug entirely on social media, citing research affirming positive outcomes from online engagement. Rather, he stresses balance, such as checking social media at predetermined times (such as morning and evening) instead of compulsively or not accessing Facebook from one's phone but instead logging in only from a home computer.
He also believes recognizing the inherently narcissistic nature of social media can mitigate its harmful effects. "We enjoy communicating with people online because they are showing the best parts of their life. I am posting things that are positive, just like you, and we go back and forth. It's like we are living in this interpersonal Disneyland," he observes. "That is enjoyable, but as Christians we care about reality and really knowing each other. That's authentic community. I can't have that if I am only focusing on the positive. We might see a woman creating all these beautiful crafts. What we aren't seeing is her argument with her toddler, but we know that happens in everybody's household."
Farewell to Facebook?
Even though she intellectually acknowledges the exaggerated nature of social media, Aisling still feels like social-media images can be powerful in creating discontent, likening them to a "horror movie you know is not real, but it still scares you."
She explains, "I think 90 percent of people have a tendency to glamorize their life—maybe clean up the little spot that is in the picture, but the rest of their house is a complete mess and you think, 'Wow she is so put together' . . . but in reality she is a hot mess just like you."
Erika Hammond, 36, lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and four elementary-age children, and she works as a pediatric nurse. She's always been skeptical about social media, saying, "Nobody's life can be that perfect." Yet she still felt like she needed to take a Facebook fast.
Erika was struggling with depression and anxiety; social media intensified both. It got to the point where she started resenting her husband because their finances didn't allow them to take the kind of vacations others enjoyed. So she quit Facebook for one year.
"I felt a lot better when I wasn't seeing all that," Erika explains. "I wasn't wasting time; I was more motivated in my own home and that uplifted me. It really made me dig into God's Word more . . . going over the promises of God to build myself up and see my worth through God's eyes," she says.
Not "if" but "how"
Erika is back on Facebook now (and recently started using Instagram), but she trimmed her friend list from 400 to 100. She is also more intentional about what she shares, how often she posts, how she interacts with comments, and who she follows. All of these intentional choices have led to a more positive experience.
Indeed, research indicates that the way people engage online makes a difference. A 2010 Carnegie Mellon University study found that active users—those who interact on others' posts—experienced stronger social ties and less loneliness while passive users who simply lurked had increased feelings of isolation. In the same year, a group of psychologists from the University of Missouri found similar results.
Jesse Rice, author of The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community, was one of the first to write about the pluses and pitfalls of cyberspace connection. He agrees that the type of engagement makes a difference in how we see others and even ourselves. "It is not necessarily a bad thing to surf [online], but it does make it easy to objectify our friends," he says. "Social media amplifies our natural tendency to compete and that can lead to depression or even feeling superior and treating people as objects that are entertaining to watch, not as human beings with feelings, stories and pain they are trying to work through."
Connecting . . . for real
Like Dr. Ledbetter, Rice is not ready to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Social media has become the common language of the day and it is unrealistic to expect people to stop using it, he says. If used right, he believes it creates new points of connection. Rice explains, "There are so many great opportunities to be with one another in new ways, to really pay attention to what is going on in people's lives as they post. We can notice, ask thoughtful questions, and listen to each other. This is a space where God is up to new things and we are invited in."
That's exactly how Aisling hopes to use social media. She found herself obsessing over people and checking their status out of envy rather than really caring how they were doing. So she, too, went on a Facebook fast, cut caustic ties, and deleted fake friendships.
Aisling is back online now and is using social media to share her own stories, those of her kids, or encouraging Scripture. "I refuse to put negative things out there and complain about people like I used to," she says. "Facebook has to be the most passive aggressive argument out there and I don't want to get caught up in that again."
* "Vicki" is a pseudonym