STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Millions of people around the world use social media every day, every hour, every minute to stay in touch with friends and family. And yet, social media isn't always very social. Studies show that people who spend more time on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat may feel more socially isolated than people who don't. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam says this might be because our online lives fail to match up with our real ones.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Rachel Leonard is a free spirit. In her 20s and early 30s, she lived all over the U.S. and traveled the world. She met lots of different people in all these places and wanted to keep in touch with them.
RACHEL LEONARD: And one of the ways to immediately connect with them was to friend them on Facebook.
VEDANTAM: But, of course, having Facebook also allowed her to see what everyone back home was up to while she was backpacking in Central America or moving from one city to the next.
LEONARD: You know, everybody's getting married. Some people have one child, some people have two children. All my friends have these high-powered jobs, and they own houses and all of these things.
VEDANTAM: Those feelings were in the back of her mind a few years later when she met a guy and decided to settle down. Soon, she was engaged and like so many of her friends posting about her relationship on social media.
LEONARD: We lived in, you know, the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we had these beautiful hikes and this lovely little town. And, of course, I'm posting all of this.
VEDANTAM: Her new relationship, the house they'd moved into, the view from the porch - all of it looked beautiful on Facebook.
LEONARD: If you looked only from the porch, you could see mountains straight, but if you looked to the left, you could see this huge factory. But, of course, I didn't take pictures of the factory because why would you do that?
VEDANTAM: And the factory wasn't the only thing Rachel says she was leaving out of the frame.
LEONARD: What I'm not posting is that we fought a lot and what seemed to be kind of perfect to other people was not.
VEDANTAM: But Rachel still tried to convince herself that this was what she wanted. She got married. She got pregnant right away. She had a difficult pregnancy, but, again, that wasn't something she felt she could share on social media.
LEONARD: Instead of being able to say those things out loud, I just posted pictures of my growing belly, and, you know, cute things and working on the nursery and, you know, things like that.
VEDANTAM: The unhappier Rachel felt, the more she posted. And she spent a lot of time looking at other people's posts, too.
LEONARD: I would just scour other people's lives. I would just - to compare, you know, their happiness against my happiness. You know, am I - I felt like I shouldn't be feeling the way I was feeling.
VEDANTAM: It seemed the grass was always greener for everyone else, that everyone else was more successful, happier in their marriages, coping better with the challenges of parenthood. But then something happened that changed her perspective. Rachel's marriage fell apart, and she posted on Facebook that she and her son would be moving back to Ohio where her family lived.
LEONARD: And I got so many private messages from friends of mine who were like are you guys getting divorced, blah, blah, blah? And I've been separated for six months or we're getting divorced or I've been divorced for two years. I had no idea.
VEDANTAM: Many of the friends and acquaintances she had been envying turned out to be in the same situation she was - posting one thing but feeling another.
LEONARD: You're kind of curating your life, just these very specific moments, the best of the best that you're putting up there with no context.
VEDANTAM: All of this curation had a negative effect on Rachel, and she's not alone. A recent study showed that spending time on Facebook increases our feelings of social comparison. Ohad Barzilay and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University studied employees at an Israeli security firm, some of whom were not allowed to use Facebook at all while others were allowed to use the site. They found...
OHAD BARZILAY: Using Facebook make you more comparative. You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, you compare am I better or worse than my friends? Am I happier? Are they happier? And so on.
VEDANTAM: One surprising thing that the study did not find was that people thought that others had better lives. In fact, they weren't fooled by all the happy vacation and anniversary pictures posted by their friends, but the constant feeling of social comparison still made people feel worse.
BARZILAY: Being engaged in excessive social comparison decreased one's happiness. So it's not that you think that others are happier than you are, but you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again, and these social comparison engagement makes you less happy.
VEDANTAM: Perhaps you've heard of young people talking about a phenomenon related to this. They often use the term FOMO.
BARBARA KAHN: Fear of missing out.
VEDANTAM: The fear of missing out. Barbara Kahn is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies decision-making. She became interested in FOMO after observing a situation with one of her daughter's friends.
KAHN: One of her friends chose to go to a wedding in a beautiful locale instead of going to a beach weekend where the other friends were going to be. And instead of enjoying the wedding that she was at, she was looking at Facebook and looking at the activities of her friends at this beach weekend, which was a routine thing. It wasn't a special occasion at all.
VEDANTAM: Kahn thinks that seeing our friends having fun on social media taps into our social anxiety about belonging to the group.
KAHN: What we found out from a lot of the experiments that we ran, the thing that was generating the FOMO - it's like a social anxiety. And it's really more about what are your friends doing in building up their social group history that you're missing out on?
VEDANTAM: Of course, Facebook didn't invent social anxiety.
KAHN: But when you see it on your phone, and you're just observing that your friends are doing something and you're not there, that's something you didn't get to see before.
VEDANTAM: Kahn's research showed you don't just have a pang of worry that you are being left out. You can't enjoy whatever you are doing in the present. The fear of missing out leads to actually missing out. As for Rachel, she's in a new relationship now and she and her son are doing well. She doesn't feel the need to publicize happy moments on Facebook the way she used to.
LEONARD: I don't take a lot of pictures anymore. If I'm there in a moment and I'm having that moment, who's the picture for?
VEDANTAM: In fact, she's even asked her new boyfriend not to post about their relationship on social media. This time, the good moments and the bad will be theirs alone. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.
INSKEEP: If you have a fear of missing out on Shankar's discussions of the fear of missing out, there's more on his podcast Hidden Brain.
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