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Facebook's negative psychological effects

Like a mirror of the material world, the socially poor get poorer online.

Illustration/Chris Slane
Illustration/Chris Slane

If I had $1 for every time a ­journalist asked whether Facebook is a blight on civilisation, I’d have about $6.

Facebook is a big deal, judging by the research industry that has sprung up around it. Do Facebook profiles reflect how a person is, or how they’d like to be? What are the ­differences between Facebook and ­Myspace users? Does Facebook enhance or decrease self-esteem? Will Facebook ruin your grades? These are all examples of actual research.

It’s easy to see why – there are about 1.5 billion Facebook users, and more than two-thirds of New Zealanders who use the internet use Facebook daily. When I’m asked if social media sites are going to send us all to hell, my standard answer is something like, “Well, Facebook isn’t intrinsically good or bad – it’s how we use it that counts, and aren’t we really just using it to do things we’ve always done?

“And maybe it’s handy for people who wish they had more social interaction, or are prevented from socialising.”

Let’s take a closer look at some of this. Given that Facebook claims to help us “connect and share with the people” in our lives, does it actually help us make connections?

Samantha Stronge and other researchers (including me) involved with the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS) have been asking similar questions, and the results appear in the online New Zealand Journal of Psychology. We surveyed more than 6000 Kiwis about their online habits, personalities and things such as “belongingness”.

It turns out that younger women are New Zealand’s predominant Facebook users. Asian survey respondents were most likely to be on Facebook (78%), ­followed by Pasifika (66%) and Maori (60%), with Pakeha bringing up the rear (58%). Religious New Zealanders are less likely to use the social network and parents clearly don’t have the time to do so. Importantly, Facebook users on average felt more connected than non-users.

We know that extroverted, socially outgoing people tend to look for ways to connect with others, so it makes sense that they would see Facebook as something else to help themselves to from the social-interaction smorgasbord. Indeed, the NZAVS research confirms that.

But what about my top-of-the-head notion that Facebook has social ­benefits for people who, because they’re introverted, might want more social interaction but feel less comfortable pursuing it face-to-face? Sadly, the answer is that although Facebook and other social networking sites do bring people closer, they also provide a great way to show how others’ lives are more exciting and social than our own. Of course, people rarely post updates showing how they didn’t catch up with friends and have a great time, so there’s a certain bias in the type of information available.

Whether perception or reality, the data shows that extroverted Facebook users feel a smidgen more connected to others than extroverted non-users, but introverted users report the lowest feeling of ­belonging – the social rich get richer, but the poor get poorer, as the authors point out.

I mentioned I took part in this research. It’s a convention in the discipline of psychology to indicate who did the most work on a paper by putting their names first in the list of authors. My name is last on this particular one, which means I really need to give the credit to others. Or to click “like”.

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