As reported in the New York Times, Facebook is spreading around the world at a rate far outpacing its developers most ambitious predictions. It's clear that Facebook is here to stay, at least until something better comes along. Though everyone worries about such issues as Facebook's threats to privacy, worker productivity, and student performance, Facebook is the social media, as one PT blogger Pamela Rutledge put it "Everybody Loves to Hate."

Much to the annoyance of teens and college students, Facebook is no longer a fad among the young. Parents, grandparents, extended family members, and adults in their 30s and beyond are finding that Facebook connects them with relatives and friends from whom they might otherwise lose touch. Businesses, public interest organizations, entertainment organizations, and political figures, catching on to the marketing potential of Facebook, establish "organization" or "public figure" entities that fans can follow. Facebook can even lead to the improbable outcome of an 88-year-old woman's being invited to host Saturday Night Live (Betty White fans, you know who you are). 

If you drop in regularly, or keep it on in the background window at all times, you are certainly aware of many of the benefits that Facebook offers (or you wouldn't be using it, I assume). But if your use of Facebook falls into the category of life's guilty pleasures, keep reading to find out why you can take guilt out of the equation. If you've never ventured into Facebook territory, though, you'll see that maybe it's worth checking out. And if you're a devoted user, no ifs ands or buts, well, read on anyway because you may still find some surprising benefits you hadn't considered.

Psychological research on Facebook is in its preliminary stages and most of it concentrates, naturally enough, on young adults. In research on adult development and aging, there is practically no research on friendship, much less on social media. Given the complexity of adult life and the high mobility of many adults in the U.S., I would venture to guess that social networking will gain much more attention particularly as the techno-savvy Baby Boomers grow older.

In the past, heavy internet use, particularly among teens, was seen as a sign of social isolation, depression, and loneliness. The tide is turning, though, and social networking through Facebook is being regarded much more positively. Teens whose families move away from friends and extended families can bridge the gap in their lives by maintaining their Facebook connections. These connections, as long as they don't involve cyber-bullying or cyber-stalking, can bolster their growing sense of identity.

It's true that there are annoying features about Facebook and plenty of problems can ensue if your use of it gets out of control. There are friends whose posts are too self-revealing (who they partied with and how), too mundane (detailed descriptions with photos of the poptarts they ate for breakfast), or just inappropriate (off-color observations about all the things that ticks them off). Of course then are some uplifts present on Facebook as well.  It's nice to get a "like" on one of your comments. Often people post inspirational observations. You can watch your best friend's baby grow older. Getting a friend request from a long-lost buddy or cousin you haven't seen for years will almost always give you a boost in your day. You can also learn about news stories you might otherwise miss. I actually had a student who informed me that her ONLY source of news was Facebook. Sigh.

Along these lines, many educators, myself included, worry that students post photos or comments that they will later regret. I tried to give this advice to another one of my students whose profile showed her in a very revealing bikini. I thought it might not be advisable given that she was about to enter the job market. Her defense- "at least I wasn't drinking." OK, well, I tried! 

Turning now to research on Facebook, here are the findings of a few recent studies that provide some useful psychological insights. A researcher team at Michigan State University, headed by Charles Steinfield (2008), studied college students over a one-year period and found that students with lower self-esteem actually benefited in terms of developing relationships with other students than did students whose self-esteem was initially higher. Facebook enabled these students to establish what the researchers called "social capital" by giving them the confidence they initially lacked to form a support network. 

What about Facebook addicts? Turns out they're pretty much the same as people who become addicted to other addictive substances or activities. Australian researchers Kathryn Wilson and her colleagues (2010) found that college students high in extraversion and low in conscientiousness were most likely to become hooked on Facebook. These are characteristics also found in young people who drink alcohol as a means of self-enhancement.

Students also use Facebook for informational purposes including learning about events and academic courses, according to an in-depth study conducted by psychologists Bonds-Raacke and Raacke (2010). Particularly useful in this regard was the ability of Facebook to provide students with knowledge about campus life that they might otherwise not learn. If you're a student or parent of a college student, you can appreciate the value of having students hearing about campus speakers, club or team meetings, concerts, and so on. 

Online games are another facet of social networking sites.In an earlier posting, I talked about the benefits of computer games for maintaining and enhancing cognitive functions in older adults.

You can take an online survey on my website. After you take the survey, you'll be directed to further resources about this new and exciting area of research. When I have enough responses, I'll update the site with the findings. 

Just as Facebook users are burgeoning in numbers and expanding across generational, national, and cultural boundaries, we can expect future research to provide a better understanding of the social networking phenomenon. In the process, we may learn new insights into what makes us tick as social animals. We can hope that in an increasingly technological world, our desire to reach out and virtually touch others will give us new ways to find fulfillment through our relationships.

Oh, and have I mentioned? --  I hope you'll join my Facebook site, The Search for Fulfillment for updates on my research and more.  

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

References:

Bonds-Raacke, J., & Raacke, J. (2010). MySpace and Facebook: Identifying dimensions of uses and gratifications for friend networking sites. Individual Differences Research, 8, 27-33.

Mezquita, L., Stewart, S. H., & Ruipérez, M. (2010). Big-five personality domains predict internal drinking motives in young adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 240-245.

Steinfield, C., Ellison, N. B., & Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 434-445.

Wilson, K., Fornasier, S., & White, K. M. (2010). Psychological predictors of young adults' use of social networking sites. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 173-177.

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