The XX Factor

Is Facebook Making Its Original Audience Miserable?

The latest survey of American college students says freshmen have never been more stressed or less satisfied . Almost one-third of them were nervous wrecks before they even got to college, and 48 percent of them say their emotional health is “below average.” So what’s everybody worried about? One thing’s for sure: it ain’t academics. Average study time has declined by 10 hours a week over the last 50 years (to 14 hours a week). And kids are more confident in their academic abilities than ever (66 percent expect at least a B average, and 71 percent say their academic abilities are above average).

In the reporting on the survey, the economy, probably justly, has come in for a lot of blame . Students’ parents are unemployed at higher rates than they’ve ever been (although unemployment among the parents of college students is still much lower than it is in the general population). Young people know employers aren’t going to be lined up after convocation with pre-printed business cards, and as early as freshman year, they’re worried about getting jobs after they graduate.

But I think Libby Copeland’s piece in Slate on the social ills of social media points to another possible culprit: Facebook. As Libby pointed out, someone who’s already a little bit stressed, lonely, or sad is likely to come away from a 2-hour 2 a.m. Facebook trawl convinced that she’s the only person in the world who is stressed, lonely, or sad. Everyone else is kissing their boyfriend or smiling in a bar with their dozen best friends or whipping up the “best. chocolate. chip. cookies. EVER.”

I know that for myself, the “presentation anxiety” Libby describes was never more intense than during my freshman year of college. I went to a school where I knew precisely one person before classes started, and I was sure my Facebook profile would affect the way everyone else on campus saw me, forever. I tended my “favorites” list with more care than a FarmVille vegetable garden, wrote cheeky status updates (but not too often!) and never, ever, let on that I sometimes felt alone in a crowd of 25,000. But somehow, the knowledge that my own profile in no way reflected the reality of my life didn’t stop me from taking everyone else’s Facebook self at face value.

Significantly, the survey in question didn’t ask people to describe themselves with phrases like “happy,” “sad,” or “about to set myself on fire with a Bunsen burner.” They asked students to compare their emotional health to other students’, with phrases like “above average,” “average,” and “below average.” That kind of question requires respondents to figure out both what “average” is and where they are in relation to it. Despite Facebook’s disconnect from reality, the site has a huge influence on people’s perception of “average.”  And because Facebook allows people to display all the glitter in their lives, but none of the shit, it’s creating a perceived happiness inflation that might be every bit as pernicious as grade inflation.

Photograph by Nicholas Kamm for Getty Images.