A study conducted at Cornell has found a positive relationship between Facebook use and self-esteem levels.
Facebook currently has approximately 500 million users, who spend more than 700 billion active minutes per month on the website. According to a study conducted by lead author Amy Gonzales Ph.D. ’10 and co-author Prof. Jeffrey Hancock, communication, Facebook walls and profiles may have a positive influence on the self-esteem of college students.
“When we’re online, we can selectively self-present,” said Hancock, who is the co-author of the study. “We can take more time and sound more witty.”
The study was conducted in 2009 and published on Feb. 24 in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. In the study, 63 Cornell students were left alone in the Social Media Lab in Kennedy Hall. The students were divided evenly into three groups: those who sat at computers showing their Facebook profiles, those who sat at turned-off computers, and those who sat at turned-off computers with mirrors propped against them. Those with the computers on Facebook were permitted to spend three minutes exploring their profile and related tabs. They were also allowed to edit their page if they so chose.
After three minutes, all participants were given a questionnaire, which measured self-esteem using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. According to Gonzales, “the scale was developed and validated in the field of psychology in 1965 and is used commonly.”
When comparing the group with a mirror and no access to Facebook to the group without access or a mirror, there was no elevation in self-esteem reported, according to Hancock. The students who were given access to their Facebook profiles, however, reported a drastic improvement in self-esteem and provided much more positive feedback about themselves than the students with no access. Students who not only explored their profiles, but also edited them reported the highest self-esteem out of the entire group.
“Facebook can transform the way we think about ourselves and our friends and family,” Hancock said regarding the implications of the study.
According to Gonzales, she created the study in order to study two opposing theories of communication: the objective self-awareness theory, or OSA, and the hyperpersonal model theory. According to the OSA theory, when an individual focuses attention on him or herself, their self-esteem may be negatively affected because this focus makes individuals recall all of their faults, problems and defects, and concentrate on them. The hyperpersonal model theory, on the other hand, suggests that when individuals are asked to focus on themselves, they tend to think of themselves in a positive, self-esteem improving, way.
Because the study showed increased self-esteem in students who explored their Facebook profiles and no decrease in self-esteem in students who looked in a mirror, its results support the hyperpersonal model theory.
These results, according to Gonzales, are very exciting. "There are not a lot of theories that have been tested within the computer-mediated communications field compared to other communications subfields, so this was exciting from a theoretical perspective," she said.
Though the study is complete, there is still much to be learned about Facebook and its psychological impacts on users. "By providing multiple opportunities for selective self-presentation such as photos, personal details and witty comments, social networking sites exemplify how modern technology sometimes forces us to reconsider previously understood psychological processes,” Gonzales said.
Still, the authors agreed that the study’s findings cannot make a blanket statement about the relationship between Facebook and self-esteem levels. Hancock believed that the study might have benefited from expanding its subject pool to people of different age brackets and socioeconomic statuses.
Gonzales defended the study, noting that the use of 20 subjects per group is standard procedure for psychological studies.
However, one should still view the results with caution. “To say that these findings are generalizable is an entirely different issue,” Gonzales said.
Despite its limitations, some believe that the study presents valid findings. “The main thing is making sure people are connected with each other,” said Liza Brauns ’11, Campus Outreach Chair of Cornell Minds Matter. “Facebook helps encourage connection with other students.”
However, Brauns also cautioned that students “cannot spend all their time online. That creates an isolation issue. There needs to be a balance.”
Gonzales and Hancock both noted that a future study might observe the long-term effects of Facebook use.
“We found that a little bit of exposure does make a significant difference,” Hancock said. “But is there a peak?”
“We have no idea if this is a lasting impact,” Gonzales added.
“There have always been negative assumptions about communication technology. This study shows that they might not necessarily be true,” Hancock said.