Humans are social animals, but does online social networking do us more harm than good? A new study suggests that frequent use of Facebook by young adults may actually make them less happy than "real-world" socializing. The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Leuven in Belgium, was published this week in the journal PLoS One.
The study — which the researchers acknowledge may be just the first step in understanding how online social networks affect well-being — followed 82 young adults from the Ann Arbor region for two weeks. The researchers then sent the people text messages five times a day, each of which linked to a survey. The survey asked five questions:
Question four was the key to unlocking how people felt over the course of the two weeks. As the researchers wrote, "The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time."
Ethan Kross, the study's lead author and the director at the University of Michigan's Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory, told Time that Facebook alone is probably not the only element in peoples' lack of satisfaction in their lives. "My hunch is that there are likely a variety of factors that may be driving this effect. Maybe when you're looking at Facebook you're engaging in a lot of social comparisons. Maybe when you're on Facebook you're not engaging in other kinds of activities that may be good for you, like getting outside, exercising and interacting with people in daily life."
That said, the study itself makes the claim that Facebook is "an invaluable resource" that fulfills the need for social connection, but that might only be on the surface. Deeper down, the authors wrote, the study's findings "suggest that Facebook may undermine" well-being.
Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of social media studies at West Virginia University, recommends interpreting these findings with some caution. "Studies like these are good for telling us when there is an important association between Facebook use and mood, but they are not as good at telling us whether increased Facebook use causes people’s negative moods. It's very possible, for instance, that people's negative moods are what's making people use Facebook more."
Obviously this is an early study with a small sample size. Kross told the Los Angeles Times that more study is needed. "Facebook and online social networks more generally represent a very new way in which human beings are interacting, and we're really just beginning to scratch the surface as to how exactly these interactions work and how they influence us."
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