EMOTIONAL HEALTH
September 13, 2016

Facebook Strikes Back

Facebook can foster envy and self-loathing, but the effect of certain types of messages is positive.

It appears Facebook has been smarting from studies that found using the social media site can bring you down, making you unhappy, lonely or even depressed. A new study, a joint venture between Facebook and Carnegie Mellon University, says this can happen, but it doesn't have to. Like so many things in life, Facebook can be pretty much whatever you make of it.

The new study found that using Facebook can improve your well-being. But simply clicking on like or dislike doesn't seem to do it. The key seems to be personalized communication.

Receiving targeted, composed communications from people the recipients had strong ties with was associated with greater well-being. One-click communications such as “likes” or general audience communications did not.

“We're not talking about anything that's particularly labor-intensive,” said Moira Burke, the study's lead author and a researcher at Facebook. “This can be a comment that's just a sentence or two. The important thing is that someone such as a close friend takes the time to personalize it. The content may be uplifting, and the mere act of communication reminds recipients of the meaningful relationships in their lives.”

Why would different Facebook studies give conflicting results? Well, for one thing, many studies have based their findings on user recollections and have been very short term. The new study used actual Facebook logs, looked at a three-month time period and broke down what users were doing while on Facebook into different types of activities.

The Power of The Personal Post

“It turns out that when you talk with a little more depth on Facebook to people you already like, you feel better,” said Robert Kraut, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and the study's co-author. “That also happens when people talk in person.”

The study looked at 1,910 Facebook users from 91 countries who were recruited with Facebook ads. Users filled out seven different scales (questionnaires) commonly used to measure social and psychological well-being. These measured qualities such as satisfaction with life, happiness, loneliness and depression.

“People who are feeling down may indeed spend more time on social media, but they choose to do so because they've learned it makes them feel better.”

Receiving targeted, composed communications from people the recipients had strong ties with was associated with greater well-being. Several other types of communications — one-click communications such as being liked and composed but general audience communications such as status updates or blog posts — did not.

Even the more personalized communications — wall posts or comments — didn't boost recipients' well-being if they came from people who weren't particularly close. They only boosted well-being if they were from people the recipient truly cared about.

As for previous findings that Facebook use and unhappiness go together, Burke offers this possibility: “This suggests that people who are feeling down may indeed spend more time on social media, but they choose to do so because they've learned it makes them feel better. They're reminded of the people they care about in their lives.”

And if you happen to be stumped about what others do and don't appreciate in your postings, here are some suggestions on what usually works well, along with some common disasters.

The study appears in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and is freely available.

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