Facebook addiction, thy name is Andrew Hirst.

This study just appeared in my inbox:

“For many people, there’s an automatic assumption that the Internet is bad. This is one of the first studies to show that there’s a psychological benefit of Facebook,” Hancock said.

In the study, 63 Cornell students were left alone in the university’s Social Media Lab; they were seated either at computers that showed their Facebook profiles or at computers that were turned off. Some of the off computers had mirror propped against the screen; others had no mirror.

Those on Facebook were allowed to spend three minutes on the page, exploring only their own profiles and associated tabs. They were then given a questionnaire designed to measure their self-esteem.

Those in the mirror and control groups were given the same questionnaire. While their reports showed no elevation in self-esteem, those who had used Facebook gave much more positive feedback about themselves. Those who had edited their Facebook profiles during the exercise had the highest self-esteem.

Interesting stuff. My first thought was to post it on Facebook, of course. Rather than doing that, however, I started thinking about the effect Facebook has on my life. I quickly decided that I’m probably a borderline/full-blown Facebook addict.  I spend an inordinate amount of time on the site, often at the expense of other work I could be doing. If I see something funny or interesting on the web my first thought is to post it on Facebook. When there’s a lull in conversation I get out my iPhone and check it (in fact I have been known to do this mid-conversation which is pretty rude of me). I use Facebook as my main source for news stories, despite the fact that I’m quite clearly missing out on a lot of stuff because of this; I used to use my iGoogle homepage (with its varied and comprehensive stock of RSS feeds) everyday for this but I’ve recently just focussed on Facebook.  In fact a couple of weeks ago I asked my girlfriend to change my password so I couldn’t go on it for an evening when I had some serious work to get done. It was an odd experience. Part of me kept getting frustrated that I couldn’t check Facebook, but another part of me was really glad… it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was the most productive academically that I’ve been in quite some time. As soon as I’d finished the essay, however, I was straight back on Facebook.

This is all most likely caused because Facebook is so good at elevating self-esteem. It is an effortless and simple way to get a quick self-esteem fix. As the article says

“This is probably because Facebook allows them to put their best face forward, says Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor of communication; users can choose what they reveal about themselves and filter anything that might reflect badly”.

This removes much of what makes actual face-to-face social interaction (you know, the kind they used to have in the old days) a bit tricky. The complexities of social interaction are well documented and its magnanimous importance for humans is well known; people who experience developmental difficulties comprehending social interaction (i.e. those on the autistic spectrum) are effectively severely disabled. Those who are hypersensitive to social stimuli are more likely to develop social anxiety disorder (as I mention in my post “Mental illness or cognitive style?”) which can be equally as crippling as autism (my use of the term “disorder” may seem hypocritical given what I argued for in said post – I use it merely out of convenience, which is how those terms should always be used, not as to reflect an actually existing “condition”). Facebook allows us to get our social kicks without so many of the difficulties navigating things such as body language and linguistic intonation. You don’t have to think on your feet – you can spend as long as you want composing a reply. If you want to lie to someone you can do it with ease. Your eyes or body language will never betray you. You can put up pictures that show only your good side. This is what boost our self-esteem. Everyone thinks we’re really attractive, witty, and astute, because they never have to see us in the morning or when we’re feeling angry, tired or upset.

But this is really bad, surely? What we put on Facebook may reflect our personalities, yes (as this study shows) but they don’t reflect the entirety of our personality – just a positive slice (as that study shows, actual levels of neuroticism do not correlate with Facebook-neuroticism). This can’t be good. It means that those of us who spend a lot of time on Facebook will be getting a warped view of our “friends”, and they will be getting a warped view of us. Speaking from my own experience I know that there are some people who I can have great discussions with on Facebook but who I find difficult to talk to face-to-face. This is likely because we can filter out our negative traits on Facebook but cannot do so as easily in real life, thus making actual conversation a bit more difficult to navigate.

Personally, I think the reason I gain such a boost from Facebook is that I have occasional issues with social anxiety yet at the same time I am actually quite extroverted at times. The internet is a haven for the social anxious because the cues for the anxiety (usually subtle negative social cues, e.g. a flash of negative emotion in the eyes or a tone of voice that implies a lack of interest in what you are saying) aren’t present online. I can chat with people over Facebook with ease, but when I actually speak to them I can get anxious and say things that aren’t quite so eloquent. However, I still need to get my regular social fix to placate the extrovert inside me. A reliance on Facebook for social interaction was pretty much bound to happen.

And yes, I’m well aware of how ironic it is for me to post this on Facebook. But this is actually one of the true benefits of Facebook: it is a great promotional tool. Furthermore, Facebook events are actually very personally useful to me. Without them I wouldn’t hear about a large chunk of the gigs/parties/plays/birthdays/etc. that I would be interested in knowing about. And despite my reliance on it, I have heard about many genuinely fascinating things and had many interesting discussions because of it. Spontaneous outings have happened because of a comment made on someone’s status. A particularly interesting link has sparked off large debate during face-to-face social interaction.

All these things have enriched my life. Overreliance, however, has quite clearly damaged it. As the site I linked to earlier about Facebook addiction mentions, however,

While a cocaine addict can put down his drug and an alcoholic his drink, you can’t preach abstinence to a student society that functions on Internet usage. What you can do is practice control”.

Whilst this statement seems to make light of cocaine and alcohol addiction somewhat (after all, in a society where alcohol is so ingrained in all social events it’s not just a case of putting down the drink) it does carry a grain of truth: Facebook is truly ingrained in our society and it makes no sense to just “quit”. It’s all about control. Unfortunately, control is something I find extremely hard to exercise…

Ah well. Back to Facebook.

P.S. I checked Facebook 6 times whilst writing this.



  1. Nice article (although I appear to be doing a bit of http://tdwgeeks.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/c08a41b5-5b48-4aa4-97d7-2e03a5d3f8be.jpg to avoid going to work)

    I actually use Facebook in the inverse way, which makes me look entirely worse than I am. I’m not sure this is a subconscious experiment to see how many friends value what you write on a shitty social networking site more than your actual physical interarctions, or just bloody-mindedness though.

    It also seems to be a metaphor for life to a large extent. People don’t want to actually tackle any issues but want kittens!

    It seems to be working though! In future decades I’ll be seen as a maverick genius 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s