Jan. 4, 2013 at 1:16 PM ET
Scientists have found what compels people to constantly update their Facebook status. College students who posted more status updates than they normally did felt less lonely over the course of a week, even if no one "Liked" or commented on their posts, researchers found.
"We got the idea to conduct this study during a coffee-break sharing random stories about what friends had posted on Facebook," psychology researcher Fenne große Deters, of the Universitat Berlin, told LiveScience in an email. "Wondering why posting status updates is so popular, we thought that it would be thrilling to study this new form of communication empirically."
Deters and her colleague recruited about 100 undergraduates (all Facebook users) at the University of Arizona. All participants filled out initial surveys to measure their levels of loneliness, happiness and depression, and they gave the researchers access to their Facebook profiles by friending a dummy user created for the experiment.
The students were sent an analysis of their average weekly status updates (online wall-memos) and some of the participants were then told to post more statuses than usual over the next seven days. During that week, all completed a short online questionnaire at the end of each day about their mood and level of social connection.
Compared with the group of students who didn't adjust their social media habits, those who went on a status-writing blitz felt less lonely over the week, the team found. Their happiness and depression levels went unchanged, "suggesting that the effect is specific to experienced loneliness," the researchers wrote. And a drop in loneliness was linked to an increase in feeling more socially connected, which the researchers believe is the cause behind the positive effects of status updating. [ 6 Personal Secrets Your Facebook Profile Isn't Keeping ]
Interestingly, the team found that loneliness levels did not depend on whether the students' status updates garnered any comments or "Likes" from Facebook friends. One might assume that a lack of response could be considered a form of rejection, but the act of writing a status update itself might help people feel more connected, the researchers said. When crafting a clever status, Facebook users have a target audience in mind. Simply thinking about their friends (or at least their Facebook friends ) can have a "social snacking" effect.
"Similar to a snack temporarily reducing hunger until the next meal, social snacking may help tolerate the lack of 'real' social interaction for a certain amount of time," the researchers wrote in a paper published last month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Now with over a billion users, Facebook has become the focus of an increasing number of studies trying to uncover the real-life social side effects that can accompany using the social media site.
For example, research presented last year at the meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) showed how the site offers a dangerous medium for social comparison. People in that study with lots of Facebook friends had lower self-esteem, feeling worse about their place in life and their achievements if they'd just viewed their friends' status updates, compared with people who hadn't recently surfed the site. But for people with just a few Facebook friends, viewing status updates wasn't a problem.
Another study, detailed in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Nature, found such Facebook friends can influence real-life actions of one another. In that study, one "get out the vote" message sent to 61 million Facebook users on Election Day 2010 led to 340,000 people casting ballots when they otherwise would not have.
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