There has been a spate of books and columns recently about the ways the Internet makes us dumber, less happy, less fulfilled. Flying in the face of these theories is a new paper in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The study, from two Cornell researchers, found that Facebook actually helps boost people's self-esteem.
"I think that saying that Facebook/the Internet is 'good' or 'bad' is naive and overly simplistic," one of the researchers, Amy Gonzales, tells Fast Company. "Facebook/the Internet aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Given that, I want to know what that means for human behavior and what implications it may have for human psychology. This is just one small study trying to get at those effects."
For the study, researchers Amy Gonzales and Jeffrey Hancock gathered 63 students in the university's Social Media Lab. The students then sat in front of computers, some of which showed their Facebook profiles, some of which showed nothing (the computer was off), and some of which, eerily, had mirrors propped against the computer screen.
The students sat there for three minutes, with the Facebook group permitted to spend three minutes surfing only their page and its associated tabs. When the three minutes was up, everyone was given a questionnaire on self-esteem. The control and mirror groups saw no rise in self-esteem; the Facebook group, however, did.
The students who had edited their profiles during the three minutes felt the highest level of self-esteem. "Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does not match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves," Hancock told Cornell Chronicle. "We're not saying that it's a deceptive version of self, but it's a positive one."
While a case could be made that many sites might do the same thing, Hancock plans to study the matter further, examining just which aspect of Facebook leads to the boost—whether it's the self-presentation of an edited album of photos, or whether it's the encouraging comments on your wall. Gonzales, too, plans to follow up with a study on whether media use in general makes us more, or less, happy. In her new position at the University of Pennsylvania, she has devised a study that will track 150 Philadelphia residents, surveying them several times a day about their interactions with people—whether mediated through technology or in person—and how meaningful they find those relationships.
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[Image: Flickr user heungsub]