Facebook could be valuable for the promotion of mental health

Harold Mandel's picture
Facebook across the world

The Facebook phenomenon has changed the way we communicate and see the world overnight. Suddenly ideas, photos, art, stories, music, and even feelings can be shared in a flash with people across the world on one social networking site. Having access to tuning into what's going on with other people in so quick a manner leaves open considerations that Facebook can actually serve as a valuable resource to help promote mental health by sharing positive feelings online.

Although happiness and other emotions have been observed to spread between people who are in direct contact, it has been unclear whether massive online social networks such as Facebook also contribute to this spread, reported PLOS One. Researchers have elaborated upon a novel method for measuring the contagion of emotional expression.

The researchers found using data from millions of Facebook users that rainfall directly influences the emotional content of their status messages. This was seen to also affect the status messages of friends who were in other cities who are not experiencing rainfall. It was estimated that for each person affected directly, rainfall changes the emotional expression of about one to two other people. This has also suggested that online social networks may heighten the intensity of global emotional synchrony.

Interestingly, although you can't catch a flu from a friend or family member online, it appears perhaps you can catch a mood, reports the University of California, San Diego. The study which was published in PLOS ONE analyzes over a billion anonymized status updates among greater than 100 million users of Facebook in the United States. The study has found that positive posts lead to positive posts, while negative posts lead to negative ones. The positive posts have turned out to be more influential, or more contagious.


Lead author James Fowler, who is a professor of political science in the Division of Social Sciences and of medical genetics in the School of Medicine at UC San Diego, has said “Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends’ emotional expressions to change.” Fowler has gone on to say that his research group has showed that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative expressions spread.

Fowler has highlighted that in our digitally connected world it is important to understand what can be transmitted through social media. In this study Fowler and his associates observed that rainy weather reliably changes the tenor of posts, with an increase in the number of negative posts by 1.16 percent, while decreasing the number of positive by 1.19 percent.

These researchers say that their data shows each additional negative post yields 1.29 more negative posts among one’s friends. Also, each additional positive post was seen to yield an additional 1.75 positive posts among friends. It appears this study probably underestimates how much emotion actually spreads around a digital social network. Fowler said, “It is possible that emotional contagion online is even stronger than we were able to measure.”

It is the belief of the researchers that their findings have widespread implications. They have written that emotions might actually ripple through social networks and generate large-scale synchrony which gives rise to clusters of happy and unhappy people. Fowler feels if an emotional change in one person can actually spread digitally and cause a change in many people, then "we may be dramatically underestimating the effectiveness of efforts to improve mental and physical health.” Fowler says we should learn how to magnify the effects of social networks and use them to create an epidemic of wellbeing.

It has been my impression that emotions really are shared and even at times contagious online. In view of the enormous number of Facebook users worldwide this presents us with compelling considerations of how feelings can be altered internationally with digital communications. This awareness creates awesome considerations of the potential for effective therapeutic interventions online. Sharing positive feelings in the form of comments, bright photos, uplifting music, and cheerful videos online has the potential to promote mentally healthy positive feelings in friends, family and others literally across the world. This awareness also raises concerns about the possible negative implications of sharing negative feelings online.