Your emotions can be manipulated through the posts you see on social media, according to a study published in the in the June 2014 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which examined the behaviors of 689,003 Facebook users, showed that the emotions expressed by a post could influence whether or not a person viewing their Facebook news feed posted something positive or negative.

These moods are not just temporary either. In fact, a similar study conducted over a 20-year period concluded that longer lasting moods, like depression or happiness, can be transferred through social networks. This new study expands on the 20-year data and points to one conclusion: the feelings expressed on social media influence other people and might cause mental health concerns, like anxiety or depression, if the feelings are sustained.

The Study

In 2012, researchers at Cornell University and the University of California manipulated what 689,003 Facebook users could see on their news feed. The researchers split participants into two groups: one with lower levels of positive posts, one with lower levels of negative posts. Participants' news feeds were manipulated for one week.

The results showed that participants that were exposed to lower levels of positive posts were more likely to make negative posts, while participants that were exposed to lower levels of negative posts were more likely to make positive posts. Researchers concluded that “emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions" and face-to-face interaction isn't necessary to influence a person's emotions.

The Controversy

Since the study published, Facebook users have been expressing their discontent over the possible manipulation of their news feeds and their posts. However, Facebook's Terms and Conditions, which every user agrees to when signing up for the site, states that user data can be used for “data analysis, testing, research and service improvement." Even so, lead researcher Adam D. I. Kramer issued a formal apology in which he stated that “the reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product."

The Impact

The public consensus is that using sites like Facebook too much can lead to mental health concerns. A 2013 study on the subject even suggests that Facebook undermines the well-being of its users, and causes depression. This new study expands on that idea by showing the relationship between people's expressed emotions on Facebook and how others perceive them.

As social creatures, humans are more inclined to empathize with their companions. It's no surprise that an anxious Facebook user could cause anxiety in his or her Facebook friends simply by posting. Though more research needs to be done to confirm these results, it is important to keep a positive attitude on social media. You never know who your posts are influencing.

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Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory, Jeffrey T. Hancock. Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

Date of original publication:

Updated: December 16, 2016