Facebook: Self-Esteem Booster or Killer?

Last Updated Mar 22, 2011 8:05 AM EDT

Self-Esteem and Social NetworkingWhile it's an fact that Mark Zuckerberg's time-eating, money-making machine Facebook has embedded itself deeply in modern life, the mental effects of young people's collective addiction to the site are still up for debate. Exactly how does staring at the details of dear friends' and distant acquaintances' lives affect us emotionally?

Two camps are arguing very different points of view on how these connections impact our lives. In the optimists' corner is Jeffrey Hancock, a professor of communication at Cornell University and co-author of a recent study on the site's psychological effects. His research found that staring at your Facebook account actually boosts 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 match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves. We're not saying that it's a deceptive version of self, but it's a positive one.

For many people, there's an automatic assumption that the Internet is bad. This is one of the first studies to show that there's a psychological benefit of Facebook.

Hmmm, interesting, but what happens when it begins to creep into your consciousness that there's a pretty substantial space between the always witty version of you that you present online and the less glamorous reality? While at Stanford completing his PhD in psychology, Alex Jordan asked just this question. The more pessimistic results of his research were published in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and reported at length by Slate.

Jordan's study asked 80 undergraduates to estimate the number of negative and positive experience their peers were experiencing. They consistently over-estimated the fun their friends were having and underestimated their unhappiness, and Facebook could be worsening this tendency to think everyone else is enjoying themselves more than you are. Slate says:

The human habit of overestimating other people's happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are." But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature. And women--an especially unhappy bunch of late--may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.
Ben Casnocha and Stan Jones have also blogged about this phenomenon, calling it the "the feel-bad effect from not-so-close Facebook friends." Jones writes about meeting seemingly successful Facebook friends in the flesh:
On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven't been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company.
"It cannot be psychologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms," he concludes. So which take on the effect of Facebook do you find more convincing -- self-esteem booster or self esteem killer?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Idhren, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.