You know it’s a good time of the year for psychology “news” when the American Psychological Association holds its annual convention. Why? Because they push out a bunch of sexy press releases about presentations at the conference.
Case in point, “Social Networking’s Good and Bad Impacts on Kids,” a presentation that presents a seemingly-random selection of research findings about social networking websites like Facebook from the past few years.
This quickly gets turned into an exclusive focus on the negative aspects of the talk — “Facebook tied to poor mental health in teens: What parents must know” (CBS News), “Too Much Technology Breeds Health Problems in Teens” (Patch.com), and of course the inevitable, “Is constant ‘Facebooking’ bad for teens?” (MSNBC.com). Talk about making a mountain out of not even a molehill (since this wasn’t new research, just a summary of what we already know).
Absent from all of the news reporting is context, as usual. So-called journalists simply take what is said at the conference or in the APA press release, consider it factual, and report on it accordingly.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Dr. Larry Rosen, the presenter of this talk at the APA. But left out of the news release from the American Psychological Association is any understanding of whether these are robust research results, or preliminary findings.
A quick check of the studies where Rosen is drawing his conclusions from show that it’s quite clearly the latter. Studies are often done on small sample sizes, and more often than not, college students. For instance, the finding about narcissism and Facebook comes from a single study of 100 students at a single university. Here’s how the APA portrays those findings:
Teens who use Facebook more often show more narcissistic tendencies.
Another way of saying this — which is just as true (but far less interesting) — is to say that narcissistic teens use Facebook more to express their narcissism. And why wouldn’t they? That’s one of the purposes of social networking websites — to express oneself. Someone who has a disorder of expressing themselves in appropriate amounts and contexts would seem naturally drawn to social networking websites like Facebook (see, for example, Buffardi & Campbell, 2008). Duh.
The findings about psychological well-bring and Facebook usage? Well, we have one study of 70 undergraduate students from a “small, Catholic, liberal arts institution in the Northeast” (Assumption College; Kalpidou et al. 2010). The researchers found an association between spending time on Facebook and negative self-esteem, among other findings. The obvious interpretation? Not that Facebook causes negative self-esteem, but that people with low self-esteem are drawn to a technology modality — social networking — that makes them more comfortable with expressing themselves.
These and other studies like them are interesting, helpful datapoints in understanding the intersection of human behavior and technology. But they are just that — single datapoints. In most cases, they haven’t yet been replicated, or replicated with more demographically-representative samples where one could reasonably generalize or draw broad conclusions from them.
Other results were necessarily left out. In a large study conducted on 2,603 undergraduate college students in Texas, researchers found a positive relationship between the intensity of Facebook use and students’ life satisfaction, social trust, civic engagement and political participation (Valenzuela et al., 2009). A far cry from the suggestion that anyone who uses Facebook “too much” (whatever that means) is a narcissistic, depressed person.
Facebook is a great resource, and a great tool for teens and kids. It — and texting — are primarily how they communicate with their friends today, for better or worse. Stating the obvious, such as “Facebook can be distracting and can negatively impact learning” is no different that saying “TV can be distracting” or “Having fun outdoors or reading a book can be distracting and negatively impact learning.” It’s just silly to state the obvious.
But even sillier are the mainstream media who report on this talk as though (a) something new was said or discovered and (b) Facebook and other social networking websites are actually causing these problems (as the headlines quoted above suggest).
There is little proof that using Facebook and other social networking websites like it cause significant or meaningful health or mental health problems in the vast majority of teens or kids who use them.
Read the full press release from the APA: Social Networking’s Good and Bad Impacts on Kids
Valenzuela, S., Park, N. & Kee, K.F. (2009). Is there social capital in a social network site?: Facebook use and college students’ life satisfaction, trust, and participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 875-901.
Buffardi, L.E. & Campbell, K.W. (2008). Narcissism and social networking web sites. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1303-1314.
Kalpidou, M. Costin, D. &; Morris, J. (2011). The relationship between Facebook and the well-being of undergraduate college students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 183-189.