Passive Facebook use undermines how a person feels


Using Facebook only to scroll through one’s news feed or browse other people’s profiles can have a negative impact on the user’s well-being, says a U-M researcher.

Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology, and colleague Philippe Verduyn of the University of Leuven in Belgium examined how passive versus active Facebook use affects users.

The findings, which appear in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, elaborate on the researchers’ earlier work about how increased Facebook use, overall, leads to declines in people’s well-being.

In the current work, Kross and Verduyn completed two studies: one laboratory experiment, which allowed the researchers to draw inferences about cause and effect; and one experience sampling study, which allowed them to examine how Facebook use undermines emotional well-being in daily life over time.

Across both studies, they found that passive use of Facebook leads to consistent declines in how good people feel over time, mainly by increasing feelings of envy toward others.

Interestingly, people spend most of their time passively using Facebook, rather than being more active — posting status updates, responding to other people’s posts and chatting — which has no implications for people’s well-being.

“These findings help illuminate how using Facebook undermines the way people feel,” said Kross, the study’s senior author who also is a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research. “They also provide people with a blueprint for how to reduce the negative effects that interacting with this technology may have on the way people feel.”

The first study involved about 80 undergraduate students. They were instructed to use Facebook actively or passively for 10 minutes in a controlled lab environment. When students passively used Facebook, they felt significantly worse at the end of the day. This was not the case for the student who used Facebook actively.

In the second study, the researchers examined whether passive Facebook use predicted similar outcomes when people engaged in this behavior spontaneously in daily life. About 80 undergraduate students were text messaged five times a day over six consecutive days.

Each text message contained a link to an online questionnaire that asked them to complete a series of questions to gauge their emotions and assess how frequently they used Facebook passively versus actively.

Passive Facebook use predicted increases in envy, which in turn predicted declines in how good people felt over time. Active Facebook usage did not.

There was a silver lining to the second study. Directly replicating their prior findings on this topic, the authors found that the more people interacted directly with other people “offline,” the more their moods improved from one moment to the next.

The researchers noted that the findings raise a question about why people continue to passively use Facebook if it negatively affects how they feel over time. The data did not address this question, but the researchers had at least one explanation for this phenomenon.

“It is possible that people’s motivation to ‘stay in touch’ outweigh concerns they have over how interacting with this technology influences their feelings,” said Verduyn.

Co-authors of the study are U-M researchers David Seungjae Lee, Jiyoung Park, David Seungjae Lee, Ariana Orvell, Holly Shablack, Joseph Bayer, John Jonides and Oscar Ybarra.



  1. Jennifer Sporer
    on February 25, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Online lurkers may also be introverted or shy in person which can be part of low self-esteem, so I am not confident that this correlation reflects causation.

  2. Scott Martin
    on February 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    @Jennifer: Kross et al.’s original 2013 paper reporting this effect found that it was independent of the participants’ scores on a self-esteem assessment, among other things:

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