What Lonely People Seek from Facebook

For the lonely, Facebook can provide important social support

Posted Nov 22, 2014

We often hear it said that people who use Facebook suffer deteriorating social relationships due to their excessive online preoccupation.  However, we know from previous research that people use social media for different reasons, reflecting their “Facebook personality.” The fact remains that a common perception of Facebook users is that, over time, their online habits cause their real-life social relationships to deteriorate.

According to the displacement hypothesis, the time that people spend on with their virtual social partners displaces the time they spend with their real ones in FtF (“face to face”) interaction. If you’re spending 3 or 4 hours a day on Facebook, you won’t have enough time to invest in your relationships with your loved ones and friends. Furthermore, if you’re in your online world, the displacement hypothesis argues, you’ll have less of the time and incentive you need to meet new people who might become your friends or loved ones.

As reviewed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee communications researcher Hayeon Song and colleagues (2014), prior evidence has suggested that when people spend a great deal of time on Facebook, their social networks shrink. They tend to retreat within themselves, eventually becoming depressed, lonely, and dissatisfied with their lives.

However, as Song et al. point out, there’s also evidence to support the social augmentation hypothesis.  According to this view, loneliness causes excessive Facebook use. People who don’t have many friends or close family nearby may seek out Facebook as a source of social interaction to fulfill their needs for affiliation.  They may also be trying to compensate for their lack of social skills in FtF interactions.

Unfortunately, the tendency to spend time on Facebook as a way to make up for what’s lacking in your daily life can have to the opposite effect. What begins as a way to reach out and have your needs for connection met becomes an end in itself, making you even lonelier and more socially anxious.

Song and her associates pitted the displacement and social augmentation hypotheses against each other in the statistical equivalent of dueling banjoes. Using a powerful method known as meta-analysis¸ they gathered data from nearly 9,000 participants across 18 separate tests to find out if loneliness would predict Facebook use or vice versa.

In addition to examining loneliness itself, Song and her colleagues wanted to investigate the roles of shyness and social support. People who are shy might, one could argue, see Facebook as a less threatening way than FtF interaction to have their social needs met.  If you’re shy, Facebook provides a safe way to communicate with people in a broader social network than you might feel comfortable seeking out on a daily basis. Social support, similarly, seems like an important factor.  If you’re feeling isolated, you can turn to Facebook for those all-important “likes” that allow you to feel that you’re not alone.

The measures of Facebook use in the studies that Song et al. investigated included whether or not individuals used Facebook at all, the amount of time they spent on Facebook for users, and whether the patterns of use qualified as excessive or compulsive.  However, they measured it, Facebook use and loneliness were positively related to each other.

The question then became one of which causes which, and this is where the magic of statistical analysis came into play. By comparing a model in which loneliness caused Facebook use and vice versa, Song and her collaborators were able to show that the arrows went in the direction of loneliness as the driving force. The loneliest Facebook users, in turn, were those who were both shy and had low levels of social support.

The best way to understand excessive Facebook use, then, is in terms of what psychologists call Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT).   According to this view, we approach all of our social media and other forms of communication in terms of what we can get out of them. If we’re lonely, we seek Facebook as a way to alleviate these feelings. If you’re depressed, you may turn to YouTube for funny cat videos. 

Before we had social media, our outlets for these feelings were less easy to grab onto. Particularly for people who are shy and have fewer contacts to begin with, reaching out to fulfill the need for human contact in the real world could present a challenge.

The question remains, though, as to whether lonely people who seek Facebook through the process described by UGT retreat even further from their real-life relationships as time goes on. It might be difficult if you are shy to go out and meet new people, especially if you’re new to an area and don’t have many family and friends to support you. However, you might eventually start to emerge from your comfort zone and establish those person-to-person connections. With Facebook’s ready availability, you won’t have the need to venture out and make new relationships because it’s always there, waiting for you, requiring little effort on your part.

On the other hand, we could argue that with the support that Facebook can provide and the less threatening opportunities it gives for people to expand their social networks, the more that Facebook use can help people develop and strengthen their social skills. Making a social faux pas on Facebook is something you can easily cover up (thank heavens for the “delete” option) compared to saying something you regret in person. You can also practice your social skills on Facebook because you can deliberate before you actually commit that faux pas.  

I don’t know if there’s any evidence to support the idea that people who are shy or socially anxious pause longer before hitting the “post” button, but it would make sense that they would. Fear of making an error or saying the wrong thing may lead you to be more cautious, but when you find that others respond positively to you, or at least not negatively, your anxiety about sharing your thoughts and feelings may diminish.

Facebook isn’t a cure-all for people who are coping with loneliness, social anxiety, and lack of social support. However, when used as a way to test out and strengthen your social skills, whether you're lonely or not, it may prove to have some surprisingly positive outcomes.

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. 2014 

Reference:

Song, H., Zmyslinski-Seelig, A., Kim, J., Drent, A., Victor, A., Omori, K., & Allen, M. (2014). Does Facebook make you lonely?: A meta analysis. Computers In Human Behavior, 36446-452. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.04.011

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