More than a few studies have examined the impact of social media on teenagers and children today. All too often, media turn such studies’ findings into alarm bells about how Facebook is making teenagers more lonely.
Which is bunk, because we largely know that lonely teens simply like to communicate more online.
A new study confirms this, demonstrating that teenagers who are lonely turn to social media sites like Facebook to feel less lonely and more connected with their friends. But the new research also throw us an interesting new wrinkle…
If you’ll remember, NPR wrote the other week that More Teens Online Raise Risk for Teen Depression — a headline screaming about a finding that the researchers actually didn’t find. Going online doesn’t increase a teen’s risk for depression. Instead, depressed teens go online more. ((Sadly, screwing up such an important point is par for the course of most mainstream media when it comes to reporting on psychological research. Furthermore, they rarely examine the broader research literature to see if the finding is consistent with prior research, or an outlier that should be taken with a grain of salt.))
Here’s what the new research (Teppers et al. 2013) found:
As expected, adolescents who feel lonely in their relationship with peers were more likely to use Facebook to compensate for their weaker social skills, to diminish their feelings of loneliness, and to have more interpersonal contact. These findings suggest that adolescents who are lonely towards peers will especially use Facebook to feel more comfortable in making social contact.
Which makes a lot of sense. When teens started using the telephone to talk to friends all evening long in the 1960s and 1970s, parents didn’t lament, “Why is my teen spending so much time on the phone? Are they lonely??” No, they say the telephone for what it was — a technology that enhanced and reinforced their existing social relationships.
Which is what teens, children and yes, even us adults all use social media for today. “Given that Facebook allows for easy and fast communication, adolescents, especially those who are lonely, will more easily interact with peers through Facebook than by meeting them offline,” noted the researchers. “Facebook seems especially appealing for adolescents who are feeling lonely in their relationships with peers.”
Furthermore, “the present study showed that if Facebook is used to meet new people or to make new friends peer-related loneliness decreases over time. Thus, in line with our expectations based on the stimulation hypothesis (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007), using Facebook for expanding one’s social network seems to improve adolescents’ social well-being.”
But the wrinkle the new research found is related to why a person might use a social networking website like Facebook. If it’s to network with your friends, Facebook works to reduce loneliness.
However, if it’s to compensate for poor social skills, Facebook might increase loneliness in some teens. The researchers hypothesize this may be because of the comparison-based nature, superficial, everything-is-fantastic! fake nature of Facebook. And of course, it doesn’t help much for those friends who aren’t on Facebook, or if you spend time on Facebook rather than actually spending time with your friends.
To conclude, the present findings showed that not the use of Facebook per se, but the underlying motives for using Facebook predict either increases or decreases in adolescents’ peer-related loneliness. Specifically, using Facebook for social skills compensation reasons produces more feelings of loneliness over time, whereas using Facebook for networking reasons leads to emotional gratification by feeling less lonely in relationships with peers over time.
So maybe the reason why a person spends so much time on Facebook is more important than the actual act of spending time on Facebook.
Which is an argument that goes to the heart of anyone claiming there’s such a thing as “Internet addiction” and other so-called behavioral addictions. It’s not the “thing” that’s addictive — it’s a person using the “thing” to compensate for something else missing in their lives.
Teppers, E., Luyckx, K., Klimstra, TA, Goossens, L. (2013). Loneliness and Facebook motives in adolescence: A longitudinal inquiry into directionality of effect. Journal of Adolescence. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.11.003