Does Facebook Use Improve Social Connections or Weaken Attention?

A network analysis of participants’ social media use and well-being reveals complex links with social capital but a minimal association with attentional control.

Tim Beck, PhD
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A recent study conducted by a group of psychologists in Belgium seeks to challenge common stereotypes about social media use and problems with attention. Most assumptions about this relationship start with the premise that overusing anything is the result of issues with controlling one’s attention. However, applying this too broadly to all instances of social media use leads to oversimplified pictures of users as well as platforms, ignoring the many different purposes for which social media networks can be used. 

This study, led by Lien Faelenes, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences in the Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology, used a network analysis approach to construct a more complex picture of Facebook use. Network analyses are methods used to create graph models of multiple variables, with each variable represented by a node and relationships between them mapped as edges. More specifically:

“The current study set out to model the unique associations between central indicators of Facebook use and vulnerability for affective disorders. An important strength of this study is that it examines the role of both social capital and social comparison in the relationship between Facebook use and indicators of well-being.”

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There is no shortage of recent studies linking social media to depression. Many of these studies highlight a range of psychosocial risks related to too much screen time, including problems with attention. 

And yet, other studies have challenged such purely pessimistic takes on the relationship between social media and psychology.  They argue, instead, that using social media networks can increase a person’s sense of purpose and feelings of connectivity in ways that can potentially counteract the negative effects of overuse. In other words, it might not be these tools themselves that cause problems for people but, rather, how such tools are used to relate to others. 

The study by Faelens et al. builds upon earlier research conducted by the lead author, which also used a network analysis approach to illustrate “complex associations between social media use, social comparison, self-esteem, and indicators of risk for affective disorders.” 

The model from this earlier research suggested that when social media is used primarily to compare oneself to others, there is a higher likelihood of both low self-esteem and symptoms of depression. The most recent study, however, focused specifically on Facebook use and sought to integrate factors related to social capital and attentional control into this graph model.  

The concept of social capital—understood as the measurable benefits each person receives from social relationships—was borrowed from research in sociology and political theory. Going further, the authors of the study make a more subtle distinction, proposed by Putnam (2000), between two types of social capital: ‘bonding social capital’ and ‘bridging social capital.’ 

Bonding social capital refers to benefits of intimate relationships with family and friends while bridging social capital refers to benefits of relatively ‘weak ties’ that nonetheless provide new information and have the potential to broaden the individual’s worldview.  

It was benefits related to bridging social capital that the authors were most interested to connect with regular Facebook use. As they explain:

“SNS provides users the opportunity to activate latent ties into weak or bridging ties. This gives users the chance to maintain connections that would otherwise disappear, allowing (intensive) users to maintain larger and more heterogeneous networks”

To study these correlations, the authors developed a survey composed of already existing scales and administered it to 469 Facebook users. They then used descriptive statistics gathered from the survey to create a ‘Gaussian Graphical Model’ of the following factors: “Facebook (Facebook intensity (FBI), active public, passive and active private Facebook use (MSFU-PU/MSFU-PA/MSFU-PR), bonding social capital (BOSC) and bridging social capital (BRSC)) and emotional vulnerability (rumination (RRS), depression (DEPR), stress (STRESS), anxiety (ANX), attentional control (ATC)).” 

Overall, the study paints a more complicated picture of variables linking social media use to mental health than most previous studies on the topic. Specifically, it did not find a direct correlation between one’s ability to control their attention and Facebook use. 

And yet, the construct of ‘bridging social capital,’ described above, “emerged as a key variable in the network uniquely connecting indicators of (intensity of) Facebook use with indicators of risk for affective disorders via social comparison and self-esteem.”

This implies that it is not simply social media use in general that causes noted psychological problems spanning decreased attention, depression, stress, and anxiety. Rather, as users expand their social networks to increase ‘bridging social capital,’ these authors suggest, there is a greater tendency to evaluate oneself negatively in relation to others they observe online. 

It is, as such, tendencies to evaluate oneself negatively in relation to others, and not problems related to attention itself, that appears to be linked most strongly with symptoms of depression or anxiety. And yet, symptoms of depression or anxiety could still be linked indirectly with one’s ability to control one’s attention through bi-directional relations formed between negative affect and control over focus. 

This is notably different from prior research suggesting that the overuse of social media can cause problems with attentional control. On the other hand, Faelens et al. did not uncover any positive benefits relating to Facebook use to either form of social capital. There are several potential limitations of this research to consider.  

As the researchers themselves note, all participants were between the ages of 18-35, and the data was based on a convenience sampling approach—meaning that the data collected is not likely representative of all Facebook users. The graph produced was also based almost exclusively on self-report data, making it nearly impossible to know how well the data match the reality of the participants’ everyday lives. 

To address these concerns, the authors suggest that future studies couple objective measures of Facebook use with physiological indicators of mood. This certainly makes sense in terms of verifying possible causal relationships between variables. And yet, it likewise underscores the ethical dilemmas at stake anytime research is conducted on individuals’ internet use.

Social media platforms are organized through algorithms that are programmed by data scientists to maximize user interactivity. The overarching goal of the companies in control of such processes is to collect data on user behavior to optimize ‘user experience.’ Despite using (and proposing) the same methods that data companies do to increase user engagement with their sites, Faelens et al. do not address such important topics in their article.

At the same time, individual users also play critical roles in reinventing such platforms when they are used for collective purposes beyond those that serve tech companies. As digital technology becomes ever-more seamlessly embedded within everyday activities, attentional control will, in turn, become more widely distributed throughout a growing network (the internet) of things. Here, any boundaries between virtual and actual spaces are destined to become even more porous than they already are. 

This growing market for attention, coupled with more concerted data-collection, has been named by former Google programmers, quite aptly, as the ‘attention economy.’ We have already begun witnessing how data collected by mental health software can be used in ways that cross ethical boundaries without users’ consent. An essential question for psychologists at this juncture, therefore, is whether they will reflect critically on the ways in which they contribute to the attention economy rather than just participate in it unreflectively.

 

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Faelens, L., Van de Putte, E., Hoorelbeke, K., de Raedt, R., & Koster, E. H. W. (2019). A Network Analysis of Facebook Use and Well-being in Relation to Key Psychological Variables: Replication and Extension. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/y9u4a (Link)

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Tim Beck, PhD
MIA Research News Team: Tim Beck is an Instructor in psychology at the University of West Georgia, where he earned a PhD in Psychology: Consciousness and Society. For his dissertation, he traced a critical history of the biomedical model of mental health, focusing on diagnostic representations of autism, and became interested in the power of self-advocacy movements to reshape conventional assumptions about mental suffering. In fall 2019, he will start a new position as Assistant Professor at Landmark College, where he will collaborate with students and faculty at their Center for Neurodiversity.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Anytime you base your esteem on peer opinion, you are at the mercy of peer opinion.

    Unfortunately, many children are being raised by Facebook and YouTube, and don’t have anyone to model centred self-esteem for them.

    Children’s brains are also at the mercy of the dopamine hit offered by the device. Adults have better executive function, and can (somewhat) resist this mindfark. But children fail to develop this executive function when they are getting 50-100 dopamine hits per day via their device.

    • “Anytime you base your esteem on peer opinion, you are at the mercy of peer opinion.”

      You said a mouthful, JanCarol, I totally agree with this. That’s how we give away our power, when we go by what others think, rather than by our own inner sense of who we are and what we desire. That’s our birthright. What one community might judge and condemn, another one will embrace and celebrate. We are that diverse.

      I would imagine we are born with self-esteem, it is a natural state of being. However, when we are born into a world of fucked up adults, that natural sense of self can become corrupt quickly from lack of awareness on the part of adults of how their actions and attitudes affect those around them, especially impressionable children. That’s one way to control others.

      Social media is a self-esteem killer, in general, with all the social bullying and shaming which occurs, everyone comparing themselves to others, throwing each other shade out of envy, rather than simply focusing on their own path. Everyone’s in each other’s business via social media, all boundaries are lost.

      Kids do, indeed, need better role models. I don’t think they’re terribly happy with how adults have handled things, and I can’t blame them. Some of the younger generation seem more awake. Hopefully, they’ve learned from our mistakes and we can be humble about that.

  2. Obviously responses to media related devices/sites will greatly vary dependant on age of user or non user. (as do responses to any info or concern)
    From my experience facebook is really a tracking gadget, a perv gadget, a false friend gadget.
    non verbal communication often has drawbacks, whether through text or pictures.
    Any media can make the susceptible user experience negative feelings.

    I try to be careful about my judgments regarding media, since for many, it is a way to remain in contact, since it seems so generational.
    But I know people tend to get caught up in the feeling of how many put “likes” on their stuff, how many respond.
    There is also heartache involved with people “dissing”…(ignoring) there are arguments, misunderstandings. And I listen to my daughter in law’s sister, talking to my DIL, about this and that person with whom she had miscommunication problems.
    A lot of emotional game playing happens on media, and it happens as quick as you can type without ever having to face the person, to sort it out.
    I would say overall it is a horrible way of trying to communicate, especially the way it is often used. It has brought some minority communities together, those in the same boat so to speak, on issues that can be isolating, yet it is ALWAYS public.
    I would say that for those adults, it is imperative that they continue discussing sensitive info in another manner.

    I do think Instagram is a good alternative if someone is itching to share their latest adventure with people they know, but that too, it gets connected to being emotionally invested in how many people “liked” or commented.
    It is akin to wearing a new dress or having lost weight, a new hair cut, working out, generally looking and feeling better, yet the person or people you thought were going to say something positive, don’t notice or comment, except online it exposes you to random people who have an interest today, but move onto another blog tomorrow.
    Online communication risks a feeling of abandonment much easier, and/or on top of already having that feeling of isolation.
    Of course it can be a positive thing, but it sucks people in, it often sucks in vulnerable people, or makes them vulnerable.
    Media as well as a host of other garbage out there preys on people in general.
    I think schools would be wise to talk about media early on, how it influences, how kids should try to not depend on being liked online, how they should always discuss important things in person and explaining the whys.
    From grade 6 on, it should be part of curriculum. But as we know, if it’s explained to the young, the “mental health” paradigm will sneak into it. The explanations of negatives usually result in words like “depression”, “anxiety and MI. If normal human feelings, the feeling of being down about not being liked or included, on facebook or elsewhere, were not every frekin time used in the sense of MI, perhaps we could get further in educating kids.

    • It has to do with more than specific content or personal privacy. Personality profiling predicts and catalogues which people will resist totalitarianism and how, who will be the most “disgruntled” with the system lifestyle, and who to keep tabs on. Plus your greatest fears, your friends and social networks, etc.

      • Well oldhead, I use google and google knows exactly what I like.
        Of course I am completely aware how tracking goes on, but there is a part of
        me that is “ODD” and so even though I have no personal facebook, I am on a few facebook sites to do exactly that, be discovered and not back down.
        I am not going to be intimidated, because that IS EXACTLY what they want.

        • Google/FB are not a “they,” but an “it.” It has no feelings or opinions about your attitudes or feelings towards it other than to note and log them for future reference, whatever form that may take. But as long as you never mention any of your friends or post their pictures it’s your choice.

      • It actually hard wires the brain to crave dopamine hits, setting the kids up for a diag-nonsense later, when real life doesn’t deliver those hits…

        Children’s brains are still forming, still learning, still growing – adolescents, too, until age 25.

        This is not what we want them to be learning – how to “self soothe” via device.

  3. I don’t have a Facebook account. This piece leaves out that people like me who deliberately refused Facebook and other social media sites, and also forms of tech, can become basically ostracized for having critical thinking skills and anticipating how the sites or tech will be used badly against people. Since being harmed by psychiatry, I lost most of my friends. I have tried and tried to make new friends, and I am good at meeting people, people I meet will want to keep in touch with me…but the second you say I don’t use Facebook, I don’t text, etc, well then they just disappear like you told them you have a contagious illness. When cell phones started becoming popular I immediately anticipated how they’d be used by workplaces to track employees all the time, and I thought better of getting one. I told several friends they were a bad idea, when they told me to get one, and later those same people came back to me complaining that now their bosses followed them wherever they were and they regretted having bought them.

      • It’s nice to hear from someone who gets it, oldhead. When I think of the net and social media I often think of Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the medium is the message” and of course the message or messages I should say are ideas like normalizing privacy violations and mass surveillance. I just wish more people had refrained from signing up.

        • Yeah, they’re trying to retribalize us to a collective consciousness when there are still major penalties and pitfalls involved in sharing too much information. “No secrets” is a nice concept but first you need a world with no guillotines.

          McCluhan was one of my first intellectual heroes btw, I was obsessed with him for a number of years.

          The guy whose site I linked above said instead of Big Brother following you around now we go up to him and ask for our handcuffs — preferably the newest glitziest hi-tech variety available. (Or something like that.)

          • Nice choice of someone to obsess over. I wish I had read more McLuhan before psych drugs messed me over, used to be a prolific reader back in the day. I read everything from Thoreau, to Dostoyevsky, to Dante, to sic fi, to the backs of shampoo bottles.. But somehow never got to McLuhan really, it is a terrible oversight on my part. I had my tech critiques coming more from other writers. (Sadly Pert Plus bottles did about nothing to teach me critiques about tech culture). Agree very much about walking up asking for the handcuffs too. It is continually shocking to me how many volunteer so much personal info whom are apparently not on drugs or drunk at the time they do it. I mourn the world that knew what boundaries were! Now the very idea of boundaries seems a quaint notion.

            P.S. Appreciated the link a lot, there are some aspects of Facebook I was not aware of..just solidifies my urge to avoid it.

      • On a related note, there is a group now in the UK trying to address some issues relating to tech and mass surveillance. See Big Brother Watch, here:

        https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/

        They are pushing for a total ban of facial recognition in the UK hoping this will also impede it being used in some other parts of the world.

        On their site they list that one of the databases the police have of people’s images includes images of innocent people in the UK who are suspected of having “mental health” problems.

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