Study: Self-esteem can rise from Facebook but weight, credit suffer

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All those digital "likes" on Facebook could be the most unfriendly thing your virtual friends could do.

A steady diet of Facebook kudos leads to a loss of discipline, weight gain and credit card debt, according to a study conducted by professors from the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University.

The study, "Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem and Self Control," reveals that users who interact with close friends on Facebook experience a temporary increase in self-esteem. However, that boost in confidence is followed by a discernible lack of self-control.

Users whose social media engagement was above average were more likely to have "a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score and higher levels of credit card debt," according to a report on the research by Andrew T. Stephen, assistant professor of business administration in Pitt's Katz School of Business, and Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.

So how exactly did praise become the enemy of discipline?

Mr. Stephen said social media users experience a so-called "licensing effect" in which positive reinforcement about their lives gives them license to treat themselves.

"It's like a present. It's saying I'm going to give myself a gift. I deserve to get that unhealthy snack instead of sticking to my diet for the day," he said.

The findings surprised the researchers, who went into the study simply hoping to better understand the psychology behind social media interactions.

"Social media is used by millions of people on a daily basis and some of them spend a lot of time on it. We knew it had to have some kind of effect and there was no one study designed to ask those questions," said Mr. Stephen.

The study -- which was published online in November in the Journal of Consumer Research and is scheduled to run in the publication's June 2013 print edition -- included five different experiments conducted with more than 1,000 Facebook users in the United States.

The experiments found that people showed elevated levels of self-esteem if they had previously indicated they had strong ties to Facebook friends. People with neutral or weak ties to Facebook friends showed no changes in self-esteem.

Positive feedback from close Facebook friends is only part of the confidence boost, said Mr. Stephen. A large part also is related to the "presentation bias" that comes with using the site to present one's most positive qualities to the public.

And for some, just about anything posted by them could be considered positive, according to readers who responded to a Post-Gazette post about attention-seeking Facebook friends.

"I wrote 'I might be a Facebook addict" on my status and got 37 likes in an hour. What does that say about me, not to mention my friends? I dunno ... anyway I'm going to the bathroom now," wrote respondent Mike Weis.

Charlene Rapp admitted she turned to Facebook to brag about receiving Pirates tickets as soon as she got them. "I just posted that I got my Pirates spring training tickets. Had to let all my friends in PA know what they're missing!" she wrote.

For respondent Randy Mogle, social media has become a critical factor in maintaining a strong marriage. "I told my wife, 'How can we communicate properly if you don't read my Facebook posts!" he wrote.

Facebook users don't get a boost in self-esteem from paying attention to information being shared with them, but they do when they focus on their own postings.

According to Mr. Wilcox, it's all the better if a post about a job promotion or a child's straight-A report card is backed by "likes."

In one experiment, participants browsed either Facebook or the CNN news site and then were given the option of eating either a granola bar or a chocolate chip cookie. More often than not, Facebook users made the less healthy choice, going for the cookie.

Mr. Stephen and Mr. Wilcox said they are working to examine how their research can be used for advertising and other commercial purposes, but they also want to also get the word out to social media users to they can put their behaviors in check.

"People aren't necessarily aware it's happening, but it's not unconscious [behavior]. If more people are aware of the trend, then more can control their behaviors," Mr. Wilcox said.

"It's OK to feel good about yourself, that's fine. But just because you feel good about yourself that doesn't mean you have to go out and splurge."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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