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How and Why Social Media Affect Subjective Well-Being: Multi-Site Use and Social Comparison as Predictors of Change Across Time

Abstract

How and why does the widespread use of social media affect happiness? The present study examined whether the three components of subjective well-being—positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction—were impacted by use of three of the most popular social network sites in the U.S. (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), using the experience sampling method. Over 10 days, greater everyday use of social media resulted in lower subjective well-being—specifically, by increasing negative affective states rather than by decreasing positive states or life satisfaction—a pattern evident across all three social network sites. In evaluating why use of social media adversely impacted subjective well-being, social comparison was a strong predictor. Specifically, the more that participants reported comparing themselves to others while using social media, the less subjective well-being they subsequently experienced. In contrast, traditional, offline social interactions exerted the opposite (beneficial) effect on happiness: increasing positive affect and decreasing negative affect. The present study therefore demonstrates that ordinary, day-to-day use of social network sites adversely impacts subjective well-being over time, and further highlights the advantages of employing independent well-being measures and assessing the use of multiple sites.

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Notes

  1. In the event that participants missed a survey, their most recent complete rating of positive or negative affect served as the control, as long as it was from the same day.

  2. In other words, each one-unit increase in multi-site use predicted a .16 increase in NA, and a .03 (non-significant) change in PA.

  3. To keep the experience sampling survey as brief as possible, participants were asked to refer specifically to Facebook for the question of social comparison. However, social comparison on other sites similarly increases NA (Garcia et al. 2020).

  4. Because direct interactions affected subjective well-being, we explored their effect when included as a control variable in our primary analyses. However, the results were not substantively altered.

  5. In contrast, direct, offline social interactions reduced loneliness, B (SE) =  − 0.08 (.03), t =  − 2.58, p = .01, 95% CI [− .15, −.02].

  6. The phenomenon of assortative mixing (i.e., individuals preferentially connecting with similar others via social media) has been observed among Twitter users on the basis of subjective well-being. An interesting possibility, therefore, is that social media users may come to post content that affectively matches the content of those with whom they are connected. When those in one’s social network post largely positive content, the homogeneity of this content among connected users may only increase over time, augmenting misperceptions about the uniform positivity of others’ lives (Bollen et al. 2011).

  7. However, none of these uses of Facebook significantly predicted subjective well-being outcomes in our data.

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This research did not receive any specific Grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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Correspondence to Derrick Wirtz.

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Wirtz, D., Tucker, A., Briggs, C. et al. How and Why Social Media Affect Subjective Well-Being: Multi-Site Use and Social Comparison as Predictors of Change Across Time. J Happiness Stud 22, 1673–1691 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00291-z

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00291-z

Keywords

  • Subjective well-being
  • Positive affect
  • Negative affect
  • Social media
  • Social network sites
  • Experience sampling method