By Erica Zaiser
An article on Science Daily discusses a recent presentation given at the APA annual conference on the good and bad effects of social networking. Now, I wasn’t at the conference so I can’t comment as to the actual presentation or the researchers giving it, but the article lays out a few of the “arguments” for why social networking could be good and bad for young people based on previous research on the topic.
In it’s bullet pointed list of “adverse effects” of social network use, the first effect is in reference to a study on Facebook and narcissistic tendencies. I actually wrote on this research when it first came out in a previous SPE post. This research showed that the more people checked their Facebook, the higher they scored on measures of narcissism and that certain types of content were also associated with this personality trait. However, this was correlational research. In other words, checking Facebook does not necessarily make young people become more narcissistic. In fact it’s most likely that the personality trait precedes behaviour, as narcissism is a relatively stable personality trait.
There was no citation to the actual research for the second and third “adverse effect” mentioned (that daily use of Facebook increases anxiety and leads to lower grades). But I suspect that again these studies did not experimentally induce use of Facebook among a random sample of teens but simply measured Facebook use and these other negative behaviours and found a positive correlation. In other words, people who are narcissistic, anxious, or depressed, might be more likely to spend their time on social networking sites (for all sorts of reasons). Furthermore, people who spend too much time doing anything outside of studying are likely to have worse grades than people who are spending a quality amount of time studying. Again, I don’t know which research the author was referring to, so if people know of experimental work in this area, please point me in the right direction.
It has been known for ages that internet addiction is related to things like depression. But this doesn’t mean that use of the internet causes depression or anti-social behaviour or narcisism. It may simply be that these types of people are more likely to be drawn to spending vast amounts of time on the internet and that social networking sites in particular might provide a unique outlet for highly narcissistic individuals. To argue that the use of Facebook alone will cause your child to become more narcissistic or depressed seems unfounded and a bit silly.
The article also discusses some positive aspects of social network use, including increased empathy towards friends and as a potential tool for engaging students. Some research has suggested a link between Facebook use and greater personal contentment, greater social trust, and increased social capital among college students.
Clearly there is a need for more research on the topic and in particularly experimental research that can begin to identify if social networking actually causes any of these (positive or negative) behaviours. However, my own suspicion is that different types of people choose to use social networking in different ways. The narcissist will find a use for Facebook that is very different than a young person interested in activism. Both might spend a great deal of time on Facebook but the quality and type of production resulting from that time might be vastly different.
I hope more researchers start looking at social networking sites (and not just Facebook!) in order to see how these are being used by young people and indeed how it shapes or alters behaviour or personality. However, until that research is done we cannot take correlational findings and assume causation.