Social networks have unique power to influence people’s moods, compared with more traditional social institutions. Research indicates that users may go on to a social media site to reassure themselves that they are not too badly off.
The average social network member likes to connect with other people who post or share positive content. However, when people are in a depressed mood they may look to Facebook or other social media to find evidence that others are worse off than themselves. These are among the findings of a study carried out by academics in the Communication faculty at Ohio State University (OSU) in the United States. The results show that when people have a negative view of themselves they tend to want to link up with people who are posting negative content. At the very least, people with low self-esteem look for contacts who do not show any distinctive signs of success. The authors conclude that one of the functions of online social networks is to provide an emotional prop.
The OSU study was published online recently in the journal Computers in Human Behavior following a study carried out on 168 college students. Researchers first put participants through a facial emotion recognition test to induce a good or bad mood. All the students – both the ‘enthusiasts’ and the ‘depressives’ – were then asked to rank a number of different personal profiles at face value from the information posted on what purported to be a brand new social media platform. The individual photos were rather blurred and the profile content was also extremely bland but was supplemented by success ratings attributed to each profile in the form of icons on a one to five scale – dollar signs indicating career success and heart icons identifying a man or woman as attractive. In fact the only marked difference between profiles was how they scored on the two ‘success’ scales. Results showed that, overall, the induced ‘depressives’ among the student guinea pigs spent longer looking at profiles of people ranked low on the ‘dollar’ and ‘heart’ scales.
This study forms part of an increasing corpus of research work whose purpose is to demonstrate the importance of social networks in building personality. It is clear that Facebook has come a very long way since the days when it was a closed university network whose initial idea was to enable university students to find out about the classes fellow students were taking in order to be able to meet up with them more easily.
Social media have now penetrated people’s lives and habits to such an extent that they may be providing support for personal development. The OSU study results appear to support the theory that social networks are far more than just a means of staying in touch with family and friends but can be genuine purveyors of what the study authors call ‘a self-esteem boost’. People may actually choose to compare themselves with certain profiles rather than others in order to feel better about themselves.