Facebook, the social networking giant that connects 845 million people to one another, may be a jolly gabfest for the self-assured. But for those who suffer from low self-esteem, it appears to be a rather nasty trap, luring such people into self-disclosures that prompt many a Facebook friend to agree with their low opinion of themselves.
A new study, set to be published in the journal Psychological Science, explored the dynamics of friendship on Facebook to see what benefits or pitfalls the site might offer to a population that could use the propping up of a few new friends: those who think poorly of themselves, fear judgment by others and are prone to social isolation and depression.
Enlisting a slew of undergraduates for three separate studies, they found that those with low self-esteem are encouraged and emboldened by Facebook's capacity to provide a forum for social interaction that doesn't risk awkward face-to-face communication. They established that, given the opportunity for such social interaction, those with low-esteem do engage in the kind of self-disclosure that is thought essential for friendships to take hold and deepen.
But they also gleaned that the messages broadcast to Facebook friends by those with low self-esteem follow a pattern seen in their face-to-face interactions: Like Winnie the Pooh's friend Eeyore, they tend to issue glum, pessimistic status updates. And among strangers and Facebook friends alike, those dreary Facebook postings did not inspire a desire to make or deepen a friendship with the person.
In short, much as those with a low negative self-image could use the friends, they tend to use Facebook "in a manner that may push others away," wrote the authors, a group of psychologists from the University of Waterloo in Canada.
"It is ironic that feeling safe enough to disclose on Facebook may encourage [those with low esteem] to disclose things that could lead to the very rejection they fear," the authors conclude.
In a finding that many readers may recognize, the group further discovered that when people with a high opinion of themselves issue status updates that are discouraged, sad or angry (in short, when their posts defy expectations), their Facebook friends tend to swarm them with expressions of comfort and support. On the bright side, when those with low self-regard post updates that are uncharacteristically upbeat, they too are rewarded with electronic expressions of friendship.
"We do not advocate being inauthentic," the authors write. But if social networkers who lack self-confidence want to use Facebook to get around their social anxieties, they might want to accentuate the positive. "Rather than posting phony positive updates, [those with low self-esteem] might try sharing more of the positive things that do happen to them, and try being selective about what negative things they post."