Liked too much: Your Facebook friends may be hurting you

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Can a friend be a menace? Yes, if one's well-meaning friends represent lots of "likes" on Facebook.

That's what researchers say about the impact of too many "likes," which undermine the self-discipline of Face-book users in major ways. Positive feedback is generating increases in self-confidence that result in a license to reward oneself for being a "good" person. This boost in self-esteem is quickly followed by a loss of self-control resulting in a host of ills. Instead of sticking to one's diet, for instance, a person with heightened self-esteem caused by many "likes" on Facebook may drop a laudable goal like losing weight, according to two professors studying what they call the "licensing effect" of Facebook.

Andrew T. Stephen, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business, and Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University Business School, are the authors of a provocatively titled report, "Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem and Self Control." It appeared online in November in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The report argues that above-average social media engagement can lead to "a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score and higher levels of credit card debt." Users get a burst of approval that leads to splurges, whether in the form of extra food intake or online shopping sprees.

The study is based on five different experiments with 1,000 American Facebook subscribers. The study's results surprised the researchers, who didn't expect to find a correlation between heavy Facebook use and elevated levels of self-esteem. They found that those who used Facebook casually or hardly at all didn't experience heightened self-esteem from "likes" on the site.

Mr. Stephen and Mr. Wilcox are trying to understand how advertisers can use their insights for commercial purposes even while advising Facebook's millions of users to keep their "likes" under control. This may be one example in which it is better to have friends than to be "liked."

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