There isn't (yet) a huge psychological literature on Facebook, but some studies are starting to appear in the empirical literature. One interesting study was published this past January in the APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Kennon Sheldon, Neetu Abad and Christian Hinsch. The title of the study was "A two-process view of Facebook use and relatedness need-satisfaction: Disconnection drives use, and connection rewards it."
The study was built around a paradoxical observation about Facebook use, a paradox that we've been kicking around a bit in this series of posts. Specifically, in prior research Sheldon, Abad and Hinsch noted that Facebook use was correlated with both social connection and disconnection. And again, this seems to be one of the paradoxes about Facebook. Facebook makes me feel both connected and disconnected.
How can that be?
To understand this paradox Sheldon, Abad and Hinsch propose a simple motivational and needs satisfaction model. They argue that social disconnection motivates Facebook use: When lonely we log onto Facebook. And then, having logged onto Facebook, we experience connection. Thus the source of the paradoxical feelings. Disconnection drives Facebook use and Facebook use creates a sense of connection.
Across a series of tests, Sheldon, Abad and Hinsch find support for this model. Of particular interest are tests that involved asking participants to give up Facebook for 48 hours or asking participants to set a Facebook use reduction goal. In both these tests social disconnection predicted a greater inability to give Facebook up and setting less ambitious Facebook reduction goals. Disconnected people seemed to "need" (addicted to?) Facebook more than the connected.
On the surface, these results seem like good news. Lonely people seek out Facebook and, as a result, they feel more connected. But the trouble is that Facebook use isn't decreasing the feeling of disconnection. Again, that's the paradox. Typically, we expect social connection and disconnection to be negatively correlated. As one increases the other should decrease. As social connection increases (e.g., friendships are growing) we expect social disconnection (e.g., loneliness) to decrease. This only makes sense.
But this doesn't seem to be happening with Facebook. Even though Facebook makes me feel connected the feelings of social disconnection persist. That is, a lonely person is driven to Facebook and they get a feeling of connection, but this doesn't attenuate the loneliness.
This is the psychological dynamic that Sheldon, Abad and Hinsch think might sit behind Facebook addiction. From the conclusion of their study:
These studies have interesting implications for a number of issues, including theories of basic psychological needs, theories of addiction and coping, and theories to explain the popularity yet potential downsides of social networking...In the current data, the presence of disconnection apparently motivated Facebook use as a coping response. This is consistent with the findings of Kim et al. (2009), Stepanikova et al. (2010), and Kraut et al. (1998), who found that Internet use (including social Internet use) may be a response to loneliness or distress.
Were such responses effective? It appears the answer is “yes and no.” The more participants use Facebook, the more connection they report feeling in life. In terms of conventional SDT [Self-Determination Theory], Facebook use helps satisfy people's positive relatedness needs, which explains why they use Facebook and suggests that use is primarily beneficial. However, clearly distinguishing between connection and disconnection supplies a caveat to this conclusion: Disconnection is not decreased by Facebook use. Thus, it is possible that a lonely person may gain transient positive feelings while using Facebook but may not solve underlying real-life social problems that gave rise to feelings of loneliness or disconnection; ultimately, those problems may even get worse (Kim et al., 2009). The portrait that arises is of a person who is addicted to a coping device that does not approach problem-resolution directly but, rather, approaches a pleasant distraction from problems.