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Facebook makes you spend more, research suggests

Nov. 9, 2012 at 7:34 AM ET

Valentin Flauraud / REUTERS /
New research suggests that use of Facebook and other social media can lead to less self-control.

Most of us use social media every day. Research shows this online networking makes people feel better about themselves. But could that positive feeling have a negative impact on behavior, making you spend more or even eat more? 

As strange as it sounds, a new study suggests the answer is “yes.”

Two marketing professors say their research shows – for the first time – that using online social networks can influence behavior by reducing self-control. They conclude that Facebook and other social media can have significant effects on consumer judgment and decision-making.

"People who use Facebook more tend to have a higher body-mass index (BMI), increased binge eating, carry more credit card debt and have lower credit scores,” said Andrew Stephen, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Stephen and Keith Wilcox, an associate professor at Columbia University, believe these “unintended psychological consequences” of Facebook use are related to the ego boost people get from social media. And they found that effect is greater if you have a high percentage of close friends online. 

"Simply browsing Facebook makes people feel better about themselves and momentarily enhances their self-esteem," noted Wilcox. “It’s that enhanced self-esteem that ultimately lowers your self-control.” 

The loss of self-control, they suggest, can result in self-indulgence. When you feel good, you can rationalize ordering dessert or buying something you don’t really need. “I feel good today,” you tell yourself. “I deserve a treat.” 

Experiments verify the Facebook effect 

Wilcox and Stephen did an online survey with 541 Facebook users in the U.S. 

They asked the volunteers about their online habits: how many hours they spend on Facebook each day and how many close friends they have on the site. 

They asked about their financial situation: how many credit cards they had, how much debt was on those cards and their credit score.

They also asked for height, weight and how often the person engaged in binge eating. 

The survey showed that for those with strong social ties, Facebook use “is a significant predictor of a range of behaviors that are consistent with poor self-control.” 

These findings were consistent with what the professors found when they did a series of experiments: Being on Facebook for even a few minutes can make people have less control over the spending and food decisions they make afterward. 

In one experiment, volunteers browsed the Internet or went on Facebook for five minutes. Then they were asked to take part in an online auction for a new iPad. Those who had been on Facebook and who had a higher percentage of close friends on Facebook submitted higher bids than the volunteers who simply browsed the Internet before heading to the auction. 

Is there really a cause-and-effect here? Or is it that people who have less self-control (i.e. more credit card debt, lower credit scores and higher BMI) tend to use Facebook more? 

Some may doubt the conclusion of this report, but Professor Stephen said he is “absolutely convinced” Facebook use “is causing people to have reduced self-control in a variety of situations." 

What can we learn from this?

Wilcox and Stephen believe the Facebook effect is subtle and develops over time. The impact would seem to be more pronounced with heavy users. 

"Ultimately, the way you counteract this is by raising your self-awareness,” Professor Wilcox told me. “It's not about don't spend time on Facebook, but just be aware of what it might be doing to you." 

Professor Stephen believes these psychological repercussions are not limited to Facebook, but take place on any social media that promotes relationships and sharing with friends. 

"It's the strong connections that really trigger this boost in self-esteem which has this commensurate reduction in self-control," Stephen said. 

Both professors would like to see more research done in this area. But they conclude their report with this caution: 

“Given that self-control is important for maintaining social order and personal well-being, this subtle effect could have widespread impact.” 

This study, Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control, will be published next year in the Journal of Consumer Research. It is currently available online at the Social Science Research Network.

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