Facebook Envy: How Cruising Can Kill Self Esteem

Facebook Envy can be downright harmful to self esteem. But Facebook is an alternate universe, not reality. It's a ubiquitous PR machine where everyone's persona can sparkle brighter.
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The Facebook IPO that will turn its founders into billionaires and its code-scribbling cubicle dwellers into millionaires is the latest envy of Silicon Valley. But there is another kind of Facebook Envy that's percolating among many of its half-billon members. It's the dark side effect ironically triggered by Facebook's sunny social platform of sharing and connecting.

Facebook Envy can be downright harmful to self esteem. A recent study at Utah Valley University found that the more time college students spent on Facebook, the worse they felt about their own lives. The study was published in the December edition of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking Journal.

While it's easy to be seduced by anonymously checking out "friends," ultimately what we see and read can make us depressed. After all, it's human nature to compare ourselves with others. But experts say it's Facebook's in-your-face updates that can provoke depression, anxiety and envy. And it's hitting teens and adults alike.

Teenagers and young adults can feel as if they are missing out on the party -- literally -- after party photos are posted and they weren't invited. And for adults, while we may know that many of our "friends" are trudging along in soul-crushing careers and leading non-glam lives, that's not what we focus on, experts say.

In fact, a Stanford study published last year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people routinely over-estimate the happiness of others. The study was launched after a graduate student noticed that his friends who lingered on Facebook expressed feelings of social envy.

Psychologists are not surprised by the findings. In the past few years, some have seen an upsurge in Facebook envy as more adults climb on board.

"It's the baby factor," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist in New York City whose patients describe the angst and discomfort Facebook creates.

"It's lack of boundaries and too much information that can make people, particularly single women, feel bad. You don't want to see loving messages from your ex-boyfriend's wife or photos of their children," Dr. Ludwig says.

Both the danger and beauty of Facebook are its ease and voyeuristic nature. We can surf the site to check the goings-on of people who we may not normally give two twits about -- but suddenly when confronted with an unexpected photo or news update, it can strike a nerve, unleashing our inner stalker. Curious cruising becomes an unhealthy obsession.

"There is a voyeuristic pleasure in watching someone who doesn't know they are being watched. And even if the images are painful, perhaps on some level there is the wish that the pain of the Facebook reality will go away and they will be desensitized to this unpleasant information," Dr. Ludwig says.

And then there is Facebook as self-promotion.

There are photos of the ski vacations, first class airline seats to Beijing, and "Wait, is that Richard Branson with his arm draped around my high school friend? She looks fabulous. And that stoner sloth from college, he's doing ANOTHER Ironman Triathlon?"

"People need to realize that Facebook is the premier public relations platform," Dr. Ludwig says. "Everyone is putting their best foot forward. People don't share the bad stuff."

Lyss Stern, who runs Divalyssious Moms in New York City, has maxed out on her Facebook friends at 5,000. The founder of a networking and events company for New York City's well heeled moms, Stern is an uber-updater who regularly posts three to four times a day. Her job regularly has her mingling with celebrity moms like Christy Turlington, Brooke Shields, and Donna Karan.

Stern's glam mom postings about cocktails in the Big City could make the exhausted mom eating cereal for dinner feel like a loser. But Stern admits that Facebook is her personal platform for promotion. This is her job, not her life.

"If I wasn't in the mom space and doing this business that I created, I wouldn't be posting as much as I am. There's definitely a line between engaging and over-saturating. You can get nauseated when people go overboard on Facebook," Stern says. "My mom sometimes thinks it's bragging about the things that I post. But I really use it as a platform for my business and my brand."

And that's what experts say people need to remember. Facebook is an alternate universe, not reality. It's a ubiquitous PR machine where everyone's persona can sparkle brighter.

Posts like, "My book hit #1 on Amazon!" or "My son nailed the kindergarten entrance exams!" or the Mexican beach photos of couples canoodling, may make you cringe, but experts say, try to keep perspective.

"I tell people that Facebook doesn't show the complete picture of someone's life. I think for many what Facebook does is highlights the inequities in life and lack of fairness," Dr. Ludwig says. "There's always the potential to feel bad via Facebook as there is in life."

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