Facebook has a notorious reputation for helping college students procrastinate. But recent Stanford research suggests that social networking sites are toxic to more than just the academic wellbeing of students.
Stanford professors Benoit Monin, Carol Dweck and James Gross and doctoral student Alex Jordan found in their December paper that underestimating the unhappiness of others correlates with loneliness.
Inspired by the phenomenon of social networking websites such as Facebook, the research was conducted in four distinct studies, drawn from a sample of around 460 first-year Stanford undergraduates.
“College students are a good population to work with,” Monin said. “We can circumscribe who the other people the [individual] is interacting with [are], such as peers, friends and roommates.”
One contributing factor to this self-induced melancholy is the contrasting levels of transparency regarding the social norms of displaying happiness in social situations.
In the first study, participants generally reported that their negative emotional experiences tended to happen in private settings.
“When you’re at home watching TV, there’s no one who can see you,” said Benoit Monin, professor of psychology. “All you see are the people dressed up to go to parties—very visible things. You don’t see the lonely people.”
The transparency of seeing people having fun leads to pluralistic ignorance, or the situation where a majority of group members secretly reject what they perceive to be a social norm, but erringly assume that most others accept it.
“We hide our negative emotions,” Monin said. “You don’t tell your friends about how miserable you are because that wouldn’t be ‘cool.’ You only tell them the good events of your day and as a result, you perceive your peers’ lives as better off. You think that you’re unique, that you’re the only one who is suffering.”
Social networking websites, such as Facebook, create virtual “socializing spaces” that connect friends with each other. However, mimicking socially active environments also invites a similar enforcement of the social norm of happiness. The knowledge that one’s online profile is open to others leads to self-censorship of negative thoughts and a steady flow of positive content and photos.
“People are really unlikely to say on Facebook that they’re depressed or lonely,” said Sarah Sterman ’13. “Facebook is your social persona and you don’t want people to think you’re generally a depressed person.”
The subsequent studies investigated the relationship between loneliness and the social misperception that one is alone in feeling miserable. Study findings revealed that loneliness has a positive correlation with the underestimation of the unhappiness of others. The more we underestimate the sadness of others, the lonelier and more alienated we feel. Interestingly enough, the number of confidants one has appears to do little in avoiding misperception.
“In the study, it was surprising to find how even close friends and roommates still overestimate each others’ happiness,” said Monin. “This study didn’t find the cause of loneliness but just the correlation.”
Fortunately, the solution to alleviating loneliness may not be quite as elusive. Being aware of the problem is a major step in resolving it.
“It’s not that Facebook is bad, but we should realize that the photo of [the friend] parachuting off the Eiffel tower does not mean he or she has no boring moments,” Monin said. “People’s lives have highs and lows. Understanding that one is not unique in one’s unhappiness should make one feel closer to other people.”
Additionally, Monin proposed opening the communication lines, both in the private and public spheres.
“We’re not saying that you should go crying to everyone about how miserable you are,” Monin said. “But if people can at least open up a bit more, you’d feel better. The Internet also has anonymous support groups to help people dealing with these things find solace.”