As you may have read about, a new U.K. report is suggesting that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more stressed out he or she may be. Researchers said in a press release (.pdf) that the number and diversity of social groups with which a person engages through the social network could be a contributing factor to users' increased anxiety. They concluded that anxiety can occur when a user presents a version of themselves on Facebook - writing "posts displaying behaviour such as swearing, recklessness, drinking and smoking," for example - that may not appeal to all audiences.
The study raised some interesting questions about how interactions in the online world can affect our offline mental health. So I turned to Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, MD, whose work focuses on the virtual world’s transformative power on our psychology, to gain a better understanding of the findings. He told me:
As the size of our online social circle grows into the hundreds or even thousands, it's easy for all this superficial "friending" to become a source of stress. This can happen in several ways: Keeping up with the sheer number of updates and other exchanges can be exhausting, and it's easy to feel "behind" and guilty if we ignore "pokes" and other overtures coming our way. Also, a person's circle is often very heterogeneous and can include parents, colleagues, drinking buddies, and everything in between. It's difficult to keep everyone happy, and a comment meant for a particular audience may well offend another constituency, resulting in confusion and anxiety. Finally, all the hours spent online are taking away from offline activities, including some potentially de-stressing ones that don't involve a computer or smartphone.
Aboujaoude also noted that while Facebook settings allow users to share specific information only with designated groups, the survey suggests that a significant number of people may not be using them. This minor finding is also telling:
We all say we worry about online privacy, yet only a small percentage of us (33 percent in this study) actually take proactive measures to protect it, such as by making use of Facebook's privacy settings. This is a consistent finding and may suggest that we are starting to give up on the idea that it is even possible to protect privacy in this age - a sort of "why bother" attitude.
Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions on the psychological effects of Internet use, Grieving on Facebook: A personal story, Exploring the Internet’s dark side, Virtually You: The dangerous powers of the E-Personality and Stanford psychiatrist explores how people’s online personas affect their real-world lives
Photo by Pietro Zanarini