Humans like being around other humans. We are extraordinarily social animals. In fact, we are so social, that simply interacting with other people has been shown to be use similar brain areas as those involved with the processing of very basic rewards such as food, suggesting that interacting with people tends to make us feel good.
However, it doesn’t take much reflection to notice that the way people interact with each other has radically changed in recent years. Much of our contact happens not face-to-face, but rather while staring at screen-based digital representations of each other, with Facebook being the most prominent example. This raises a very fundamental question – how does online interaction with other people differ from interacting with people in person?
One possible way these two interaction styles might differ is through how rewarding we find them to be. Does interacting with Facebook make us feel good as does interacting with people in real life? A recent paper suggests that the answer is “probably not.” In fact, the data from this paper suggest that the more we interact with Facebook, the worse we tend to feel.
Researchers recruited participants from around a college campus. The participants initially completed a set of questionnaires, including one measuring their overall satisfaction with life. Following this, participants were sent text messages 5 times a day for two weeks. For each text, participants were asked to respond to several questions, including how good they felt at that moment, as well as how much they had used Facebook, and how much they had experienced direct interaction with others, since the last text. At the end of the two weeks, participants completed a second round of questionnaires. Here, the researchers once again measured participants’ overall satisfaction with life.
So, how does online interaction make us feel? The researchers attempted to answer this question by examining the data in two different ways. First, they looked at how the participant’s moment-to-moment feelings, or affect, changed between each text message. The data showed that as participants reported using Facebook more often in between any two texts, the more their affect tended to change for the negative. In other words, across the two weeks, increased Facebook use was associated with declines in affect. Interestingly, this relationship disappeared when participants had very little direct social contact, and was much stronger when they had quite a lot of social contact.
In the second set of analyses, the researchers looked at whether each individual’s average amount of Facebook use over the course of two weeks was related to their overall life satisfaction at the end of the study. People who tended to use Facebook more also tended to have larger declines in life satisfaction at the end of the study.
However, before you pull the plug on your web-based social networking, you should also note the limitations of this study. The biggest caveat: this is a correlational study. Although the authors have demonstrated that increased use of Facebook predicted declines in affect and well-being (and, in a separate analysis, showed that affect did not predict use of Facebook), it could be that there is some other variable driving these associations. Without an experiment in which one manipulates how frequently individuals use Facebook, it isn’t possible to be sure of the causal relationship.