Social Snacking: The Facebook Epidemic

When friends – real, live friends, not “Facebook Friends” – told me about Facebook a few years ago and urged me to sign up, I asked them what it was like. Most of them talked about it in superlatives, saying how great it was to be able to stay in touch with friends all over the world and update them on the latest news and photos from their lives. But one passed along a warning, which unfortunately I did not heed. He said, “It’s the Internet counterpart of junk food.”

Now a new study indicates that my friend may have been correct.

How often do you update your Facebook status? And why?

Those were the questions that psychologist Fenne große Deters, of the Universitat Berlin wanted to examine scientifically. So she and colleagues from the University of Arizona recruited 100 students, all Facebook users naturally, and asked them to complete surveys that measured their levels of happiness, loneliness, and depression. The students also gave the researchers the ability to monitor their Facebook activity by “friending” a dummy user account set up for the experiment.

Then the student participants in the study were sent an analysis of their regular posting habits in terms of “status updates” – words or photos posted to their Facebook “Wall” – and half of the students were asked to double the number of their status updates for the next week. The other half of the students was instructed to post as usual. During that week, both groups filled out an online questionnaire at the end of each day about their moods and their feelings of social connectedness.

The group that posted more status updates reported feeling significantly less lonely. Their overall happiness and depression levels didn’t change, “suggesting that the effect is specific to experienced loneliness,” as Deters puts it. Even more interesting, these decreased loneliness levels did not seem to be affected by either the response or non-response to the status updates. The students who were updating their statuses more often felt less lonely whether they received “Likes” or “Comments” on their updates or not.

The researchers, in a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, concluded that the positive benefits of “status updates” were that they enabled the people who made them to feel more socially interconnected, and thus less lonely. The writing of a status update seemed to be the factor that influenced the students’ mood and made them feel more socially connected, not how the update was received. They coined the term “social snacking” to describe this behavior. “Similar to a snack temporarily reducing hunger until the next meal, social snacking may help tolerate the lack of ‘real’ social interaction for a certain amount of time.”

Not that that’s a bad thing

At least posting to Facebook isn’t fattening, after all. And if in our busy and often mobile society, with friends scattered all over the world, we can feel a little more connected to friends simply by checking in with them on a social networking program, there is theoretically little harm in it.

Theoretically. There have been studies, after all, that indicate that he more Facebook friends you have, the more stressed out you may be as a result of a growing fear of saying the wrong thing and offending someone. And another study presented at a recent psychology symposium indicated that sometimes Facebook has a negative effect on users because it inspires “social comparison.” After people in this study who had many “Facebook Friends” read these Friends’ status updates, tests indicated that the people reading them had lower self esteem and tended to feel worse about their own achievements and accomplishments.

So maybe the answer if you’re feeling a little lonely is to make more updates to your own Facebook status, but if you have a lot of “Facebook Friends,” don’t read theirs.

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