Pundits and cultural critics love making proclamations about what Facebook has done to us, and often their analyses are not pretty. A particularly prominent example is a cover story published in the Atlantic earlier this year, touting the headline, “Is Facebook making us lonely?” Novelist Stephen Marche is worried and his essay has already attracted 25,000 Facebook shares.
Marche believes this:
“We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”
Marche does cite research, though sometimes in a misleading or inaccurate way. His essay has been critiqued by many (for example, here and here). What I want to add to the discussion is not just another critique but an overview of an about-to-be-published piece of research that directly tests some of the claims in Marche’s essay.
Lots of research on the use of Facebook, other social media, and the internet is correlational. That means that if, for instance, a study finds a link between Facebook usage and greater loneliness, it is not possible to know whether Facebook makes people lonely, whether lonely people use Facebook more often, or some other factor is in play.
The study I want to tell you about is different – it is an actual experiment. In the week-long study, 86 college students were randomly assigned to different instructions. Half were instructed to post Facebook status updates more often than they typically do; the other half were not told anything specific about posting status updates.
For the next week, the researchers monitored the participants’ Facebook activity, with the participants’ permission. They also asked the participants to complete questionnaires assessing their loneliness, happiness, and depression at the beginning of the study and at the end. Every day during the study, participants indicated the extent to which they felt connected to and in touch with their friends.
The results were clear and straightforward:
The participants who posted more status updates felt less lonely at the end of the week than the participants who posted about the same number of updates as they usually did.
The participants who posted more status updates also felt more connected to their friends. That feeling of connection seemed to explain why the frequent posters felt less lonely.
Before I tell you about Finding #3, I want to share another excerpt from the Marche essay. In it, he is discussing the movie, The Social Network:
“The film’s most indelible scene, the one that may well have earned it an Oscar, was the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking—a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber.”
(I discussed The Social Network here.)
What Marche is suggesting is that it is not enough just to post something on Facebook; you need to hear back from other people or else you are really going to be miserable and lonely. Well, the study I’m discussing (reference is at the end) actually tested that, too.
People who posted more status updates felt less lonely, and it did not matter whether other people responded to those updates (by commenting or “liking” the updates).
The authors could only speculate as to why it did not matter whether other people responded to status updates. To know for sure, they will have to do more research.
There are, of course, lots of limitations to this study. It examines only one of the ways in which Facebook may or may not make us lonely. Nonetheless, I think it adds some intriguing pieces of data to rein in some of our fears about Facebook Nation.
[Notes: (1) I promised to describe the rest of the results of the research on consensual non-monogamy, following up on my previous post. I’ll still get to that eventually. (2) Some other recent posts are listed below, including an interview with a long-time “Living Single” reader. (3) Happy holidays, everyone!]
Deters, F. G., & Mehl, M. R. (2012, in press). Does posting Facebook status updates increase or decrease loneliness? An online social networking experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science.