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Social network good for the psyche

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AFTER HIGH school, e-mails and phone calls allowed me to keep in touch with classmates even though we had gone on to different colleges around the world. These days I can find out what my friends and family are up to through more technologies available on computers and other devices such as online video calls, instant messaging clients and a variety of online social networks.

In a recent study, American researchers studying how interactions between people have been impacted by social media and other technologies focused on Facebook. According to the company’s statistics, as of December 2012, more than 600 million people log on to Facebook every day and more than billion people log in monthly. Additionally, over 80 percent of the social network’s monthly active users are outside North America. The researchers wanted to know why more than a billion people are spending more than an hour each day on this site. One of their theories is that being part of this online social network is good for the ego.

“The primary premise of self-affirmation theory is that people have a fundamental need to see themselves as valuable, worthy and good,” wrote the researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University in their report. “It is plausible that Facebook profiles may constitute a venue for self-affirmation and that users gravitate toward them in an unconscious effort to elevate their perceptions of self-worth and self-integrity.”

To find out how Facebook feeds the ego, the researchers conducted a series of experiments on college students. One study was conducted under the guise of an evaluation of a public speaking course. To start, student-volunteers were asked to briefly review either their own Facebook profile or a stranger’s Facebook profile. Afterward, they were each asked to give a speech that would be graded.

What the students didn’t know was that all the feedback on the speeches was designed to be negative. The researchers found that the group of students who had viewed their own online profiles before the speech was more likely to accept the negative feedback and not blame others for their results.

In another study, again done under the guise of a public speaking course, student volunteers received either negative feedback or neutral feedback on their speeches. This time, after receiving the comments, the participants were given the choice of logging on to Facebook or to a site that allowed one of four other activities that can also be done on the social network, such as playing games or reading the news.

The researchers found that the students who received neutral feedback were as likely to choose to go to Facebook as they were to pick any of the four other activities. However, they also found that nearly 60 percent of the participants who received negative feedback went to Facebook afterward compared to any of the other online activities.

“Whereas conventional wisdom maintains that Facebook use is merely a time sink and leads to an assortment of negative consequences,” the researchers concluded, “the present findings provide evidence that it can be a psychologically meaningful activity, that it supplies a sense of well-being at a deep level.”

The study first appeared online Jan. 28 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.


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