Texas Tech College of Media & Communication researchers Eric Wonseok Jang, Erik Bucy and Janice Cho investigate how self-esteem influences subjective well-being on Facebook.
The future of Facebook recently came into question when it was revealed the social media platform developed by Mark Zuckerberg allowed the data of millions of its users to be collected without their consent, then shared it with research companies for use in the 2016 presidential election without users' knowledge.
Zuckerberg faced a firing line of questions from Congress, and the company has endured intense public scrutiny and criticism from user communities. But what didn't happen was the one thing that could have shut Facebook down for good.
Hardly anyone abandoned the world's most popular social media platform.
Through the first quarter of 2018, Facebook had almost 2.2 billion users worldwide. The platform, which allows users to share all aspects of their lives with “friends,” actually gained users from the last quarter of 2017. Facebook has become such an engrained part of daily life that it is now a routine form of both personal and professional communication. In the digital age, Facebook has replaced the water cooler as the place to catch up and hear stories, all while connecting people regardless of location.
And while the platform has grown from its humble beginnings at Harvard University as a way for college students to connect into a sophisticated money-making platform, it also has become a vehicle for individual users to paint the best possible picture of themselves to the world, from everyday happenings and personal milestones to professional achievements and major accomplishments.
Despite the platform's well-publicized problems, the positive possibilities of Facebook use intrigued Texas Tech University researchers Eric Wonseok Jang, Erik Bucy and Janice Cho in the College of Media & Communication. Jang and colleagues wanted to investigate how self-esteem influences subjective well-being when user posts on the social media platform vary between a true self-presentation style and a strategic style.
Studies on the benefits derived from Facebook use are so far a mixed bag, said Jang, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising.
“Research has shown that the use of Facebook can have positive effects on users' subjective well-being because Facebook helps users to satisfy various social needs,” Jang said. “But other studies suggest Facebook use can have negative effects on one's sense of well-being.”
Problems often arise, Jang noted, when Facebook users compare their lives to others.
“If everyone posting to your news feed seems to have a better, happier, more accomplished life than you, then Facebook use can generate feelings of envy and negatively impact subjective well-being,” Jang said.
This is especially an issue for users with low self-esteem, he noted.
“One of the goals of this research is to identify strategies that might allow users to derive more benefit out of using not just Facebook but social media in general,” Jang said.
Still, the researchers felt the study's focus on Facebook was appropriate given the immense user base.
“Facebook, at this point, is a more general-user platform,” said Bucy, the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication in the College of Media & Communication. “Even though the demographics are shifting toward older users, it's still the biggest social media platform and used most often on a daily basis. It's like the TV networks of social media. So, it's important to understand what's happening there because Facebook is such a big social meeting place and hub of activity.”
Presenting your true vs. strategic self
For the study, Jang, Bucy and Cho conducted two experiments involving more than 270 active Facebook users who were recruited from Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk platform. The research was driven by a desire to understand how users might benefit from Facebook use rather than feel overwhelmed or diminished by it.
The first experiment measured self-reported happiness and subjective vitality for high and low self-esteem users after varying the self-presentation style that participants used to write a personal update. Participants were randomly assigned to post either a true self-presentation style or strategic style.
A true self-presentation style occurs when users express an honest account of who they really are in their Facebook posts, giving others a clear picture about how they feel and how their life is going with nothing held back.
Strategic self-presentation occurs when users present only their “best self,” the version that always puts one's best foot forward to online friends and followers. Study participants who provided updates using a strategic self-presentation style weren't asked to lie, Bucy said, but they were asked to present their most positive self to others.
Updates were never actually posted to Facebook during the study, only written as if they would be posted.
“We asked people to think about what's true about yourself but from a positive point of view,” Bucy said. “If you approach Facebook as a platform where you can present a positive version of yourself, what you've done and accomplished – or even what plans you have that are consistent with a positive self – as opposed to your true, every day, mundane self, then that exercise alone appears to improve your self-outlook.”
Bucy said the idea is to present yourself in a manner that makes you feel better about yourself.
Rather than affecting all users equally, the effects of self-presentation style are contingent on one's level of self-esteem. The use of a true self-presentation style had a greater effect on self-reported happiness for those with high self-esteem than it did for those with low self-esteem. Conversely, using a strategic self-presentation style resulted in higher self-reported happiness for both low and high self-esteem users. The benefit for those with lower self-esteem comes from presentation of a strategic self.
During their background research for the study, Jang, Bucy and Cho identified a few best practices likely to help people better utilize what Facebook has to offer. The first tip is to not be overly reactive on Facebook when a situation arises just to obtain validation for how you are feeling in that moment. Being in the moment on social media, Bucy said, is not always emotionally productive unless the news being shared is positive.
“Really, we're talking about effects of social media for people who are not as confident and who maybe tend to watch others more,” Bucy said. “When they post, it tends to be a little too much information about how they're feeling in the moment. Instead, it's important for those with lower self-esteem to think strategically.”
Secondly, in an age where it feels like every life moment, no matter how small, has to be shared on social media, it's probably a good idea to avoid the temptation to over-share. Except for high self-esteem users who really don't care about the reactions their posts will receive, posting incessantly could have a negative effect and not provide users with the desired level of validation they are seeking.
Link to subjective well-being
The embeddedness of social media into everyday life comes with opportunities and potential costs, many of which are psychological in nature. Bucy's earlier work on media access explored the cultural context, technical expertise and psychological resources required for effectual use of information and communication technologies. An enduring takeaway from this research is that users approach media platforms differently, so understanding motivation becomes a paramount concern.
“Our outlook is what drives a lot of our behaviors,” Bucy said. “From a public health perspective, research often focuses on the behavior, which is the last step in the process, without fully considering the emotional and psychological factors that drive you down a certain path in the first place. In the case of social media, the worse you feel about yourself, the more likely it is that you'll indulge in bad or self-destructive behavior – or not want to engage at all and maybe just ‘lurk' online. The better you feel about yourself, the more you'll probably want to present that good side of yourself.”
Owing to the prevalence of social media, what is posted or shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms no longer stays only online. Shares, likes, posts and updates are now woven into daily life in an almost seamless fashion. This integration of the social with the personal is one reason why not only what is posted online but also how it is posted is crucial to a person's subjective well-being.
“People feel that they actually build social relationships through Facebook, like making a friend they've never met before or building more intimate relationships with existing friends,” Jang said. “The quality of our social media interaction can develop or enhance these friendships. This is why self-presentation style is so important, because users can either foster a positive or negative image of themselves to others depending on what they present on Facebook.”
Because Facebook users typically communicate among circles of friends, the platform can be viewed as a comparatively safe environment compared to face-to-face communication, Jang noted. Thus, low self-esteem users may feel more acceptance by Facebook friends than in interpersonal encounters. The key is to use the medium in a positive, proactive manner rather than view the platform as a “feelings dump” where any amount of negativity is expected to be absorbed by friends.
Bucy and Jang have another piece of advice for those posting on Facebook.
“Don't be dependent on the feedback button,” Bucy said. “Not everybody is on there all the time, and you can't really expect instant validation continuously. That is a very precarious place to be psychologically. Sometimes the feedback is going to be minimal. Sometimes it's going to just be a few people. Sometimes feedback is going to be delayed. That doesn't mean you aren't doing good work and can't gain value from the medium.
“Asking participants to go through this exercise of presenting a positive self was gratifying because focusing on that positivity tends to enhance overall sense of well-being, especially if your self-esteem isn't sky high to begin with.”