Facebook (and all the social media apps and platforms) are meant to be about connecting to other people. Surely if we’re better connected with our friends and family, we should feel better, right?
So why do you generally end up feeling worse after you log on? Yes, that nasty business of comparing your unedited life to the pretty pictures and updates that other’s post of only their best bits is a factor. But even if you’re aware of all that stuff, and stop yourself from comparisons, you’re still at risk of feeling low after checking your newsfeed. Why?
App Makers Know Psychology
These days, most people who create successful apps have a really good grasp of how our brains learn. They know what kinds of responses in the app give us the biggest release of dopamine (a feel good chemical which is released in response to many different kinds of stimuli, from exercising to learning something new).
Addictive apps (looking at you, Candy Crush) exploit dopamine production. To begin with, levels are really easy. This releases lots of dopamine and you feel good, so you feel good about the game. However, if it stayed this easy, the dopamine hits would reduce in intensity and you’d get bored. So the game gets harder. The dopamine release comes whenever you conquer a new level, but that happens less and less regularly.
Now here’s the weird bit: Even though you’re getting way less dopamine than at the beginning of using the app, the mere possibility that you might get the hit the very next time you play, means you keep playing – hoping this next time will be the time that dopamine hit comes through.
If this is starting to sound familiar, well, let’s just say it’s something that poker/slot machine makers have used to great effect for quite some time now!
What’s that got to do with Facebook?
The whole process described above happens when you log onto social media. When you first started using it, it was really easy to feel good. There was lots of new stuff to look at, you’re learning how to use it more effectively, and things like gaining a new friend happened a lot.
However, after a while, that all wears off. It’s harder to get that dopamine hit now. You’ve befriended all your real friends, you’re out of creative/cute ideas for posts, and your friend’s holiday snaps aren’t so interesting the third or fourth time they’ve been away this year.
You can still get the hit. Every so often you post something other people really respond to. Every so often your friends post interesting articles or genuinely amusing pics of their kids. The good feeling is much less frequent now. But you chase after it anyway. You keep logging on, hoping this is the time you’ll see something that makes you feel good – that gets that dopamine flowing again. More likely, though, when you log on, you end up feeling empty. You log on looking for that feeling and it doesn’t come. So what do you do? Instead of logging off, you keep looking. You expose yourself to more and more information, more posts. Each time you don’t get what you’re looking for, you get a small hit of disappointment instead of feeling a bit better.
Do enough of that, and you end up with bigger negative feelings – sadness, emptiness, depression. If you waste enough time chasing that feeling, then when you do log off, you’ll experience even more of these feelings, along with some guilt too, at having wasted so much time searching for something, and not having had anything good come from it.
What Can You Do About It?
The key is in what initially attracted you to social media in the first place – i.e. the social aspect of it. Instead of scroll, scroll, scrolling, looking for that article, that post, that pic that will light up the dopamine centres of your brain, start treating Facebook like an actual interaction with a person.
When you go to hit your Facebook app or log onto the website, stop for a second and ask yourself ‘I’m thinking this will make me feel better than I do right now. Can I cope if it actually makes me feel worse?’ To make this most effective, log out of your apps/pages whenever you leave them. The small amount of time it takes to log back in gives you the space to decide whether you really want to do that.
If you don’t think you could cope with feeling worse after looking, then find something else to do! Something that is more likely to help you to feel better and which doesn’t have the potential to make you feel worse. Some ideas – do some deep breathing, smile, engage with someone around you, send a friend a message directly, have a cup of tea or a snack, brush your hair. To maximise your dopamine hit, do some exercise if you have time, or learn something new - download a foreign language app or a train your brain type app and play these when you need a mood boost.
If you’re prepared to risk feeling worse because you're keen to check out what’s going on and connect with others, then you’re okay to open the app. DO NOT SCROLL! (Difficult I know). Instead, think about someone you’re actually interested in connecting with, and go directly to their page. Engage with their latest post like you’re actually having a conversation with them. Repeat as needed.
If you want to engage with your newsfeed, the process is the same. Read the first post fully and properly. Then respond as though the person was actually in front of you. This prevents information overload, which also prevents emotional overload occurring without you realising it’s happening (if you seem to get emotional overload creeping up on you regularly, then you need to read last week’s post on how to avoid this).
If the first post isn’t something you like, or it takes you a while to respond, then with this method you’re more likely to actually feel your uncomfortable feelings which have arisen thanks to reading the post. This gives you a chance to decide to leave Facebook while the damage is small, rather than scrolling and building up your feelings without you realising it.
Summary: How to Stop Facebook From Making You Depressed
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.