Many times, when users are checking Facebook or surfing the Internet, they’ve also got a snack handy. But does Facebook make you more likely to be an unhealthy eater? A study that will appear in the June 2013 Journal of Consumer Research shows that while Facebook can boost self-esteem, it can also lower self-control at the same time, leading to dangerous behaviors such as binge eating.
Keith Wilcox of Columbia Business School and Andrew Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh wanted to test the effects of Facebook on users’ self-esteem and self-control. They studied two core groups of users: those who have strong ties to friends on their social network and those who don’t.
Wilcox and Stephen found that among users with strong ties to their Facebook friends, simply browsing the social network improved their self-esteem. However, the boost of self-esteem came with a caveat: lowered self-control.
For one study, they took a group of 84 U.S. Facebook users and split them into two groups: one browsed Facebook (but didn’t post content or interact with friends) ,and the other read CNN.com. Participants were asked to choose between two snacks: a granola bar and chocolate chip cookies. They found that users with close ties to their social network were more likely to choose cookies instead of granola bars:
The results of study three support for our theory that social network use can decrease self-control by enhancing self-esteem. Specifically, the results show that for those focused on strong ties while browsing Facebook, social network use enhanced self-esteem, making them more likely to make an unhealthy food choice compared to those who did not browse Facebook. However, the differences in self-esteem or self-control were not observed for those focused on weak ties while browsing the network.
Wilcox and Stephen dug a little further, seeing if Facebook use led to unhealthy habits such as binge eating and poor credit. They took 541 U.S. Facebook users (median age 32.06, 61 percent female) and had them take a survey about their Facebook usage, eating habits, and credit history.
The researchers threw out the outliers of those who were deemed underweight or severely overweight by Body Mass Index standards. They found that the more time the participants with strong ties to their online connections spent on Facebook, the higher their BMI was, and the more likely they were to engage in binge eating.
Next, they took 399 participants who owned credit cards to see if high amounts of Facebooking led to lower credit scores. Much like the deleterious effects of binge eating, the researchers found that those who spent more time on the social network also had more credit card debt.
In summation, the researchers found that users who spend a lot of time on Facebook, communicating with close friends, tend to also have lower levels of self-control (although, of course, that’s not always the case):
The effect of social network use on individuals’ abilities to exhibit self-control is concerning given the increased time people are spending using social networks, in part due to the worldwide proliferation of access to social networks anywhere anytime (i.e., via mobile smartphones, smart TVs, tablet computers, etc.). Even a small five-minute “dose” of social network use in our studies was enough to significantly lower self-control in subsequent choices and tasks. Heavy users likely expose themselves to multiple doses of this effect a day. Given that self-control is important for maintaining social order and personal well-being, this subtle effect could have widespread impact. This is particularly true for adolescents and young adults who are the heaviest users of social networks and have grown up using social networks as a normal part of their daily lives. Because of these factors, our findings have important policy implications. It would be worthwhile for researchers and policymakers to further explore social network use in order to better understand which consumers may be particularly vulnerable to suffering negative psychological or social consequences.
Readers: Do you agree or disagree with the findings?
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