INNSBRUCK — What real effects does Facebook have on people? That was the question psychologists Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer at Austria’s University of Innsbruck have posed. The long answer is published in the scholarly journal Computers in Human Behavior, but the short answer is that Facebook makes people unhappy.

Users come back to the site anyway because they keep hoping for the opposite effect — to feel good after having spent time with their online "network" of friends.

Over a billion people are registered on Facebook, and over 650 million log in at least once a day to read what their friends have to say and the news on the pages they subscribe to. 

Sagioglou and Greitemeyer surveyed 123 subjects right after they’d spent time on Facebook and found that the longer they looked at vacation photos and other content posted by users of the social network, the worse their moods became.

The psychologists also discovered that this is apparently a Facebook-specific effect. Comparison groups that spent time surfing the Internet in general were less gloomy when their emotional conditions were evaluated afterwards. The reason given for the difference is that time spent on Facebook is more often perceived as meaningless.

So why do so many users still log on every day? The psychologists ascribe this to an error in what is known as "affective forecasting" based on the fact that we often don’t have a very good idea of what makes us happy.

The researchers compare this to people who, for example, seek revenge and believe they will feel better after getting it, only to discover they feel worse. Sagioglou demonstrates in a third study that a similar mechanism is at work with Facebook. Subjects believed that they would get a feeling of satisfaction after they logged on, but in fact they did not.