Social media and self control

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junk food and facebookThe Bike Radar cycling forum I frequent has a fascinating thread whereby a member asked for, and then proceeded to ignore, countless pages of dietary advice.  The online car crash is regularly interspersed with photos of the original poster stood on scales and sharing images of the bad food he’s just bought sat on his car seat.

As the thread is approaching 40 pages in length it has drawn accusations of trolling, but an interesting new research paper by the University of Pittsburgh that looks at how social sharing may limit our self control.

The paper reveals that when our online social networks consist of close friends, we experience an increase in self-esteem when we browse their profiles.  Afterwards however our self-control takes a hit.

Interestingly, social network users with a high proportion of close friends amongst their network, were also shown to have higher body-mass indexes (BMI) and also higher levels of credit card debt.

“To our knowledge, this is the first research to show that using online social networks can affect self-control,” says coauthor Andrew T. Stephen, assistant professor of business administration and Katz Fellow in Marketing in the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration.

“We have demonstrated that using today’s most popular social network, Facebook, may have a detrimental affect on people’s self-control.”

About the study

Participants in the study completed surveys to determine how close they were to their social network on Facebook.  They were then divided into two groups.  One group wrote about browsing Facebook whilst the other group actually did.  They were then asked to complete a survey to gauge their self-esteem.

The results were fascinating.  Regardless of whether participants actually browsed or just wrote about browsing, those with weak ties showed no bounce in self-esteem, whilst those with strong ties did.

Social snacking

Further studies explored the impact of social sharing on our willpower.  Participants were asked to either check Facebook or read articles on CNN, after which they were given a choice between eating a granola bar or a choc-chip cookie.  The Facebook browsers overwhelmingly chose the cookie.

Another study tested the mental fortitude of social networkers by again asking participants to browse either Facebook or TMZ.com, which is a celebrity gossip site, after which they were given a word puzzle to solve.  Even though neither site is particularly weighty, Facebook users gave up on the puzzle much faster.

A final study then explored the relationship between social networking and the kind of behaviours that typify poor self-control.  Participants were asked questions such as their weight, their debt history and how many friends they have offline.

“The results suggest that greater social network use is associated with a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score, and higher levels of credit-card debt for individuals with strong ties to their social network,” the researchers write.

The moral of the story seems to be that if you want something that requires willpower, using social networks is not the best idea.

5 thoughts on “Social media and self control

  1. Great post, Adi. I agree, social media, because it's often consumed in isolation, either behind the anonymity of a laptop or mobile phone, creates a false sense of 'protection' against the real world. It's somewhat akin to road rage, where drivers tend to curse, shout and make gestures in their car, but once they step outside and face another person, the reality check comes hitting hard! (In some cases, too late, unfortunately)

    I wasn't aware of these different researches. Good stuff.
    Have a nice weekend!
    Frederic

  2. I don't think you can necessarily conclude that it's social media that's the root. Maybe it's people with a less stable self esteem who are most attracted to facebook?

    • I thought about that possibility Andy. The study says however that it asked participants to do various things, after which their self-control was tested. So it's possible that a range of social media users were included in the Facebook group, including both avid fans and reluctant users.

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