Analysis: the effect of daily social media use on levels of life satisfaction is more negative in countries which are the most economically developed

Social networking sites dominate our lives these days. A quick glance at the stories and posts on the average person’s Instagram account about their nights out, weekends away or even their breakfasts would suggest that we are living in a world where our actions don’t seem to matter unless we document and broadcast them to everyone we know.

What’s even more interesting about social networking sites is how they seem to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. We post to our business associates on LinkedIn, our friends on Facebook and people we want to make jealous on Instagram. With the continuing growth of these social networking sites, it seems that people aren’t asking whether or not social network use actually makes us any happier - and that is the point of socialising, isn’t it?

Within the research community, whether social network usage makes individuals happier or not is a hot topic. Some research has shown that frequent social network use negatively impacts our level of happiness because it causes feelings of jealousy and lowers our self-esteem. This is because we are constantly bombarded with images and videos of people having fun and socialising at times when we may just be checking our phone on the bus home from work. This induces feelings of exclusion or FOMO (fear of missing out) making us unhappy.

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But there is opposing research. This makes the argument that social networking sites help to increase and improve our social network and can therefore positively affect our sense of well-being.

So, the question is, which argument is correct? According to research underway at UCC, the answer, as with most things in life, depends. The research looks at life satisfaction levels in Europe and finds that the effect of daily social network use is more negative in countries which are the most economically developed, while it gets less negative and even positive in the less economically developed countries. For example, the effect of daily social network use on levels of individual life satisfaction in Ireland and Germany is negative, but the effect turns positive in Bulgaria and Romania. So, it appears that the negative effects of social network use are a privilege of the rich.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that either side of the initial argument are wrong, it just means that the benefit of social networking sites changes from place to place. For example, in less developed countries it could be the case that individuals derive more benefit from frequent social network use because they may have a poorer initial level of  quality in their social environment due to issues like bad (or no) working environment and/or poor community infrastructure and frequent social network use helps improve this situation which increases their level of life satisfaction.

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In more developed countries, it could be the case that individuals already have a higher initial level of quality in their social environment. As a result, the positive effect which frequent social network use can have on them is minimised and they are more vulnerable to the negative effects associated with the activity like jealousy and social exclusion.

While research findings like this obviously help us to better understand the potential consequences of our daily behaviour, this shouldn’t be seen as a warning to burn your scary smartphone to save yourself from the horrors of social media sites. There is enough scary and depressing material in today’s media already without this piece adding fuel to the fire.

However, if you’re looking at your Facebook and Instagram feed every ten minutes, it’s perfectly normal to expect that you may feel a bit jealous and excluded from the fun other people are having. Don’t be afraid to put your phone down the odd day and be a bit happier for it. It is also worth mentioning that social media sites have their benefits. But if you already live in a well-developed country and have a decent social environment, is it really that necessary to keep reminding yourself of how your ex-partner or classmate are doing in their new job by checking their Facebook profile every three minutes?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ