Who Does What on Facebook?

Your age, sex, & relationship status say a lot about how you use Facebook

Posted Apr 01, 2016

Pixabay.com/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay.com/Public Domain

Since Facebook exploded onto the virtual scene in 2004, it has become the pre-eminent social networking site on the internet.  As of August, 2015, Facebook had more than 1.5 billion monthly users, which constitutes over 25% of the adults now living on the planet.  Not surprisingly, many social psychologists (including myself!) have flocked to this exciting new arena of social behavior in an attempt to discover how human social interaction plays out in this ecological niche of cyberspace.

Some psychologists worry about how using social media may divert us from engaging in genuine face-to-face interaction, while others focus on the motivations for using Facebook and other networking sites.  However, surprisingly few have studied exactly how most of us use Facebook, so this was something I decided to tackle myself.

One of my students (Hye Sun Jeong) and I embarked on a study of how our age, sex, and relationship status influence the ways in which we use Facebook, and our results were published in 2012 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.  We apparently were onto something interesting, as our article has been cited by other scholars about 140 times in the past 3 years.

Our study was very straightforward.  We created a Facebook Event and distributed invitations to it through our networks of Facebook friends and through the email distribution list at our college.  The “event” was an online survey in which people responded to questions about how they used Facebook and the percentage of the time they spent engaging in various Facebook activities.  We ended up with a sample of 1,026 Facebook users (284 men, 735 women) ranging in age from 18 to 79 (Mean age = 30.24).  These individuals came from 54 different nations ranging alphabetically from Argentina to Zimbabwe, with Germany, South Korea, the U.K., and the United States being the largest groups.

Here are some of the highlights from our findings.

Pixabay.com/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay.com/Public Domain

First of all, except for fairly old people, most of us spend more time looking at the Facebook pages of people about our own age. (For older people, there are simply fewer individuals around their age on Facebook.)  This is in line with what we have learned from research on the evolutionary psychology of gossip, as people are most strongly motivated to keep up with the affairs of the people most likely to be allies or rivals, and these are usually people in your own age cohort.

Secondly, women engage in far more Facebook activity than men.  They spend more time on Facebook, they have more Facebook friends, and they are more interested in the relationship status of others than men are.  They are also much more interested in keeping track of the Facebook activity of other women than men are in tracking the Facebook activity of other men.

Women also expend more energy than men in using their profile pictures for impression management.  Women were much more likely to report posing like a model, making funny faces or intentionally “cute” faces, and struggling to decide which picture to use as a profile picture.  In general, women spend more time posting pictures and looking at the pictures of others as well.

Perhaps the most interesting sex difference was the fact that a man’s relationship status had a big effect on how he uses Facebook, but a woman’s relationship status appears to be completely irrelevant to her usage of Facebook.  For example, men who were not currently in a committed relationship spent more time looking at the Facebook pages of women and also spent more time posting, looking at, and commenting on photographs.  A woman’s relationship status did not predict such things, although both men and women who were not in a relationship worried a bit more about self-presentation via their profile pictures than did people who were in a relationship.

Apparently, men are more likely to use Facebook as a tool for seeking mates than are women.

Perhaps not surprisingly, older people used Facebook less than younger people.  They have fewer Facebook friends and spend less time on Facebook, and the time they do spend on Facebook is more likely to be used for social activities like messaging with friends and looking at family photos.

We unearthed a number of other interesting odds and ends, but a brief essay like this can only cover so much ground.  However, it is clear that we are just starting to scratch the surface of how human social behavior will play out in the virtual world of the 21st century.

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