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Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has become a household word.  It has over 500 million active users who have an average of 130 friends. People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on it and and it is the subject of an Oscar winning movie, The Social Network.   Clearly Facebook is a part of us, but what impact is it having on our lives?  

In a study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, In their study, Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteemtwo Cornell researchers, Amy Gonzalez and Jeffery Hancock, posit that Facebook boosts self-esteem. The study separated sixty-three students into three groups to examine "people's attitudes about themselves after exploring different internet sites." Two groups were "offline" and either sat in front of a mirror or just remained in the room looking at a blank computer screen.  The "online" group was permitted to engage their Facebook profile pages for three minutes.

A survey completed after the test showed that those who were on Facebook scored higher on the Rosenburg Self-Esteem scale than the "offline" participants.  The researches also noted that the Facebook users who spent the three minutes exclusively viewing their own profiles vs. viewing the profiles of others scored higher as well and those who changed their profile (updated) vs. those who did not,  also scored higher.   The researchers suggest that the process of "selective self presentation"  was responsible for influencing their self-esteem.  In other words,  the process of  engaging your own profile and making changes to it that makes you feel better about your self.  

My colleague Guy Winch, who writes the popular Psychology Today blog, The Squeaky Wheel and author of the book, The Squeaky Wheel:   Complaining the Right Way To--Get Results, Improve Relationships, Enhance Self-Esteem,  has a bit of a complaint of his own about this study. "The study did not prove that viewing Facebook enhances self-esteem but rather that viewing Facebook makes us feel slightly better about ourselves while we're viewing our profiles. Subjects completed the questionnaires as soon as they finished viewing Facebook, not hours or days afterward. Therefore, the study did not demonstrate that Facebook has any lasting impact on self-esteem whatsoever. I imagine the same impact could be gained by looking at our family photo albums. In addition, self-esteem is still a poorly understood construct and certainly one too complex to be captured in any accuracy by a simple ten-item questionnaire."

Dr. Winch makes a great point--just as self-esteem is complex, so is the Facebook experience. Typically, this experience is about interaction.  Focused,  "selective self-presentation" is only a small part of that process.  Facebook is about checking out profiles, engaging others, playing games and processing a lot of data.   Participants who participated in those behaviors scored lower on the self-esteem scale.

What is self-esteem anyway?  it is such a common buzzword,  but how is it understood and defined?   The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as a "confidence and satisfaction in oneself." Experts in the field of self-esteem conceptualize it as:

  • Confidence in our ability to think, to cope with the basic challenges of life and confidence in our right to be successful and happy. --- Nathaniel Branden 
  • Having a positive image of self. --- Don Simmermacher  
  • An evaluation of the emotional, intellectual, and behavioral aspects of the self-concept. --- Diane Frey & Jesse Carlock
  • A state of mind. It is the way you feel and think about yourself and others, and is measured by the way you act. ---- Connie Paladino.   

Abraham Maslow who founded humanistic psychology and developed Maslow's "hierarchy of needs"

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

 addresses esteem  as a  the normal human need to be accepted and valued by others.  George Boeree, Ph.D. wrote,  "Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one.  The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, even dominance.  The higher form involves the need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom." Maslow's theory on the need of esteem highlights how self-esteem is nurtured and impacted by our relationships with others.     

Since Facebook is fast becoming a vital necessity of modern-day socializing. The average person spends over seven hours a month on the site, a number that has nearly doubled in just a year's time. It is clear that Facebook is an experience that embodies much more than three minutes of pure "me" time.   In therapy, where people tend to spend fifty minutes focusing on themselves, Facebook frequently makes an appearance in the narratives clients share in session.  Clients discuss Facebook as an inevitable part of life that they have  a love /hate relationship with. The latter seems to come up more in sessions and the adjectives people use to describe themselves or their behaviors do not always convey confidence and satisfaction with oneself.  

I frequently hear clients label their voyeuristic behaviors on Facebook, as "time wasting".  They describe "stalking" and "obsessing" about past, present, and future lovers.   People say they feel "overwhelmed" by the number of posts and updates from their Facebook friends and "pressured" to post on their own experiences and observations.   They can describe the Facebook experience as  "competitive"  and admit to being "envious" when comparing themselves to others.  Many label themselves as "lonely" and  "pathetic" and  feeling "left out" as they observe the lives and activities of others.   Many  regularly report being "angry" about something they have seen or discovered while Facebooking.   In fairness, clients tend to bring their conflicts and struggle to therapy, so it is probably not a surprise that they tend to share the hate more than the love, but these negative experiences are likely to be a hit on esteem according to Maslow.   Conversely, all of the joy, successes, connection, sharing, and validation that Facebook facilitates presumably would counter those hits. 

It would seem then, the bigger question about Facebook is not whether it is good or bad for our self-esteem but how can we best manage the positive and the negative contributions that undoubtedly will accumulate over countless Facebook moments that shape who we are.  Our self-esteem can become  fixed at times and is clearly  impacted by circumstances but it seems to be an ever evolving relationship we experience within ourselves and how we project that to the world, our   "social network".  A home base for our Digital Self where  past, present, and potentially future relationships converge in many degrees of depth or context, exponentially and ten-fold.   We now observe, ingest, and share  so much more than humanly possible before Facebook and we are only in the infancy of becoming acquainted with socializing in this way.   We can now passively take an active interest in so many lives and must determine how actively we  want to share ourselves with others.    All this information, sharing, and interacting all, according to Maslow, contributes to our overall sense of self.  Perhaps because so much of it is spent engaging with others, three minutes of "me" time does carry some weight.   

Facebook will likely have an  impact on our self-esteem because it is the conduit for our Digital Self to express itself and connect online.   But will that prove to be exclusively a positive or negative one?   Probably not.   While  Gonzalez's and Hancock's study tries to isolate a particular Facebook activity, it is  limited in the information it provides us with respect to self-esteem as a whole, but may prove valuable in determining what kinds of activities contribute to that complex equation.  Facebook is an experience made up of many parts, as is our self-esteem, and only time will tell how Facebook shapes that and how we shape ourselves on Facebook. 

About the Authors

Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

Tamara J. Hicks, Psy.D., is co-founder of Potrero Hill Psychotherapy in San Francisco and provides psychotherapy to adults, children, couples, and families.

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