Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Source: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

When you post a Facebook photo or update, do you feel good each time that notification bubble pops up and tells you that someone has liked your post? Do you feel dejected when you fail to garner a sufficient number of likes? Or do you find that you’re relatively indifferent to how others respond to your social media antics? How you respond to that feedback may reveal something about your self-esteem and your sense of purpose.

The potential to get responses from our friends is a major motivator of social media activity, and most of us provide plenty of feedback to our online friends. A survey of Facebook users found that “liking” friends’ posts was a common activity, with 44% of users saying they liked friends’ content on a daily basis. And these likes and comments may be a major reason why people post content on sites, such as Facebook. That same survey found that 16% of men and 29% of women felt that receiving support from others was a major reason they used Facebook, and approximately 16% of all users agreed that getting feedback on postings was a primary motivator of their use of the site.

But can something as minor and easy to do as a Facebook like really make people feel better? Research has shown that signs that others are invested in their relationship with us, such as by liking Facebook posts, do give us the feeling that we are supported.1,2 And these displays are especially effective when they come from our closest connections.3 A recent survey of a nationally representative sample of social media users (average age 45) found that those who were especially satisfied with the responses they got to their most recent post, and those who received a lot of feedback on that post (e.g., Facebook likes) tended to feel more supported by their online social network.4 This suggests that both the quality and the quantity of the responses we get on social media can affect the extent to which we feel supported.

But how social media feedback affects us may depend on personality.

Past research has shown that generally, people with low self-esteem are especially likely to take others’ negative comments to heart.5 Recently, researchers at Facebook found that this carries over to reactions to online feedback. Those with low self-esteem tend to feel bad if they perceive that a Facebook post of theirs has received an insufficient number of likes.6 This is unfortunate because while those with low self-esteem are especially likely to see Facebook as a place they can seek support, they actually get less positive feedback on their posts than their more confident counterparts.7 This research suggests that those with low self-esteem are more susceptible to the effects of this social media feedback — If they get positive feedback they feel especially good, and if they don’t get it, they feel especially bad.

But, according to other new research, self-esteem is not the only factor that determines our responses to social media feedback. The relationship between self-esteem and Facebook likes may depend on a third factor: Our sense of purpose. While self-esteem can be considered a stable personality trait, it is also affected by events in our lives, which could include social media feedback. 

In a survey of 300 adults, Burrow and Rainone examined the relationship between Facebook likes, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.8 To assess sense of purpose, participants rated their agreement with six statements such as “to me, the things I do are all worthwhile” and “I have lots of reasons for living.”9 Those who indicated that they had a great deal purpose in life showed no relationship between Facebook likes and self-esteem. But for those who lacked purpose, the more Facebook likes they received, the better they felt about themselves.  

In a second study by Burrow and Rainone,102 undergraduate students participated in an experiment to see how likes directly impact self-esteem.8 All participants completed a measure of sense of purpose and were then instructed to take a selfie. That selfie was then posted on a fake social media site that participants were led to believe would be viewed by others. Participants were randomly assigned to receive false feedback about how many likes their photo had received. Some were told their photo had received the same number of likes as the average photo during pilot testing. Others were told that their photo had received below or above the average number of likes. After receiving this feedback, the students completed a measure of self-esteem. The effect of likes on self-esteem depended on sense of purpose. The results showed that receiving a large number of likes improved self-esteem only for those with a low sense of purpose, and not those with a high sense of purpose. Thus, the approval of others may provide us with a sense of meaning in our lives if we don't already have a strong sense of purpose.

This may also explain the large role that social media can take on in the lives of teenagers. Going online is more important to teens than it is to older adults, with 92% of teens reporting that they go online daily, including  24% who say they are online “almost constantly.” Finding one’s sense of identity and purpose is an important part of adolescent development.10 Since adolescents are still finding their purpose, they may be especially prone to take social media feedback to heart and to work hard for others' approval on social media.

This research suggests that the feedback we get on social media can make us feel more supported and can make us feel better ourselves. But not everyone is equally impacted by this type of feedback. Our level of self-esteem and our own sense of purpose in life may determine how important that feedback is for us.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior, and read more of her articles on Close Encounters.

References

1 Ellison, N. B., Vitak, J., Gray, R., et al. (2014). Cultivating social resources on social network sites: Facebook relationship maintenance behaviors and their role in social capital processes. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19, 855–870.

2 Hayes, R., Carr, C.T., Wohn, D. Y. (2016). One click, many meanings: Interpreting paralinguistic digital affordances in social media. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 60, 171–187.

3 Carr, C. T. Wohn, D. Y., & Hayes, R. A. (2016). [Thumbs up emoji] as social support: Relational closeness, automaticity, and interpreting social support from paralinguistic digital affordances in social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 385–393.

4 Wohn, D. Y., Carr, C. T., & Hayes, R. A. (2016). How affective is a ‘‘Like’’?: The Effect of paralinguistic digital affordances on perceived social support. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 562-266. 

5 Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M.F., Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43, 522–527.

6 Scissors, L., Burke, M., & Wengrovitz, S. (2016) What-s in a Like? Attitudes and behaviors around receiving likes on Facebook. In: Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on ComputerSupported Cooperative Work & Social Computing—CSCW’16. New York: ACM Press, pp. 1499–1508.

7 Forest, A. L., & Wood, J. V. (2012). When social networking is not working: Individuals with low self-esteem recognize but do not reap the benefits of self-disclosure on Facebook. Psychological Science, 23, 295-302.

8 Burrow, A. L., & Rainone, N. (2016). How many likes did I get?: Purpose moderates links between positive social media feedback and self-esteem.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Published online before print. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103116303377

9 Scheier, M. F., Wrosch, C., Baum, A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M…. Zdaniuk, B. (2006). The life engagement test: Assessing purpose in life. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 291-298.          

10 Klimstra, T. (2013). Adolescent personality development and identity formation. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 80-84.

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