by Lisa Peyton
I am NO fan of Facebook. Despite the fact that I started a blog, FacebookAdvanced.com, dedicated to the fine platform, I don’t use it for personal communications. I would go further to say that I have even considered the platform’s amazing growth a sign of a global addiction.
After reading Baym (2010) and Giles (2010) discuss the history of media research and particularly the ‘effects’ movement, I have reconsidered this position. Scholars have historically been debating how to approach the study of media and it’s effects. Baym gives a convincing outline of the historical rhetoric that was primarily based upon fear of new innovations in communication methods (Baym, 2010). Most notably she quotes Socrates, as he warns the inventors of the ALPHABET that it would diminish memory, knowledge and wisdom.
This same type of rhetoric can be seen today in regards to social media use and Facebook. The studies of the effects of Facebook use present conflicting reports and thereby put into question the validity of the results. One of the most recent Facebook studies published in January of 2013 by Information systems scientists at the TU Darmstadt and the Humboldt-Universitat Zu Berlin, reported that Facebook use caused negative feelings and reduced life satisfaction(Buxmann, 2013). The study goes further to outline what they describe as a vicious “envy spiral” described as Facebook users embellishing their Facebook profiles, which, in turn, provokes envy among other users. The study claims that these feeling of envy experienced when viewing your Facebook friends photos, updates, etc. can cause dissatisfaction with your own life and prompted the title of the article outlining the study: ‘Facebook makes users envious and dissatisfied’.
Ironically, Jon Stewart from they Daily Show, lambasted the ‘envy’ Facebook study on the February 5th episode, presenting two valid points (Daily Show clip below, sorry for the ads!). The first was that if you get upset that your Facebook friends are happy you may be an ‘asshole’. Obviously he was making a joke, but it does allude to the fact that the personality of the user needs to be taken into account before generalizing the studies results to ALL Facebook users. The second was that the sample group were all German college students and only a third of the survey responders recorded negative feelings.
Another Facebook study published in July 2012 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Lauren Jelenchick and Megan Moreno declared that there was NO link between Facebook use and depression. The study surveyed 190 students between the ages of 18 and 23, using a real-time assessment of Internet activity and a ‘validated, clinical screening method for depression.’ The results concluded there was no significant associations between social-media use and the probability of depression.
Both of these studies evoked a certain amount of skepticism when it came to generalization of the results. These types of studies make GREAT headlines and speak to the public’s rising concern over the use of new media. By framing the conversation from an ‘effects’ approach, it assumes a passive user role. As Giles outlines, theorists like Bushman (1995) and others argue for the inclusion of personality variables in any theory of media effects. (Giles, 2010. p. 18) I would argue that not only do the participants personality variables need to be taken into account but also the social network variables that have been established on the social media platform.
Another early theorist, Elihu Katz, argued that context was an important variable and saw the need to closely examine ‘who says what to whom with what content on what channel’. Countering the studies regarding the effects of mass media, Katz suggested that media effects should be contextualized if we are to appreciate the role of active, empowered audiences within social structures. (Livingstone, S. 1997 p.6) He was in favor of rethinking the problem of media effects by drawing particularly on analysis of the activities of the primary group and of everyday contexts of conversation. These variables complicated any linear causal theories and posit more complex patterns of audience involvement. (Livingstone, S. 1997 p.3)
I am strongly in favor of reframing the discussion of social media use to include more consideration for the participants, their personality and the context of how they are using the medium. Studies like the ones outlined above serve to misinform the public at best and could even cause a moral panic at worst. I, for one, will no longer proclaim that Facebook is an addiction without having substantial evidence to support this theory.
Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK: Polity press.
Giles, D. (2010). Psychology of the media. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Livingstone, S. (1997). The Work of Elihu Katz: conceptualizing media effects in context. London: Routledge.
Jelenchick, L. Moreno, M. (2012). University of Wisconsin-Madison. (http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/161827965.html?ipad=y/?)
Buxmann, P. (2013). Department of Information Systems of the TU Darmstadt (http://www.tu-darmstadt.de/vorbeischauen/aktuell/ni_63808.en.jsp)
Stewart, J. (2013) The Daily Show, February 5, 2013 episode. Link: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-february-5-2013/jon-stewart-uploads-his-stream-on-your-facebook (*Approximately 2 mins into the video)