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.

Second, it should be noted that the average age of participants in this study was just over 19 years old.  Given that usage of online social networks almost certainly differs dramatically between different age groups, it would be interesting to see if these findings hold up for older populations.  Similarly, one should be careful about generalizing the results of this study to other online social media platforms.  Perhaps these findings are specific to Facebook, and if the researchers had investigated usage of Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, or some other platform, they might have found a different relationship.

A third caveat has to do with the way in which the researchers measured their variables.  Since participants were reporting on their mood and Facebook use at the same time, it could be that reflecting on how they felt could have changed how much they remembered using Facebook.  For example, if a participant felt bad at that moment, that may have lead them to overestimate how much time they had spent on Facebook in the last few hours. 

Despite these limitations, the study addresses a pressing question about the way our social lives are structured, and provides some intriguing evidence that social interaction online may be associated with reduced well-being. The internet is not going anywhere, and as the proportion of people connected to the web rises, so too does its importance as central part of our social world.

So, although you may feel a sense of obligation to wish your office-mate or next-door-neighbor a very happy birthday on Facebook, maybe it would be good to try a different approach.  Forget the canned Facebook message, and take them to get a cup of coffee.  Stop by and invite them to dinner.  See if they’ll join you for a walk.  It remains to be definitively established that Facebook itself is a problem, but real-life interaction is absolutely something our extraordinarily social species benefits from, and we should make every attempt to maximize our intake of this form of socialization.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.