The Angel of the iPhone: Part 7, Connection, Disconnection and Facebook Addiction

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.

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6 thoughts on “The Angel of the iPhone: Part 7, Connection, Disconnection and Facebook Addiction”

  1. I wonder if our culture wasn't primed and ready for the pleasant distraction of Facebook for several possible reasons.

    1. Our culture has mind boggling opportunities for distractions - many of which we can't escape. Jobs, education, entertainment, gadgets, toys, and stuff. Advertisement sucks us in and we accumulate more and more, plus our disatisfaction with life is assuaged temporarily with more "new" and improved things.

    2. We are increasingly in situations where we must out of necessity put on a certain "false" self. I mean that we cannot simply tell our bosses how we really feel, we can't always tell our spouses how we really feel, and there is this nebulous sort of sense of what is acceptable behavior and appearances and so forth that we feel constrained to embrace.

    3. We like being connected on our terms, feeling in control, and in many cases able to say what we want, feel, think without too many negative repurcussions, or at least without the discomfort of face-to-face conflict.

    But as you pointed out in your post, the pseudo connection of facebook fails to deliver a complete sense of connection which would ideally be a complete sense of self, unthreatened, while being fully engaged in personal relationships - face-to-face, living, breathing, touching, seeing, hearing our friends and families.

    This post scratches the surface, at least for me, as to why technology in some sense should be reigned in. One last example, my 14 year old stepdaughter got into some trouble last week and her iPhone has been taken away... she's a totally different creature this week: engaging, loving, pleasant, reading books, and willing to do more as a family.

  2. Perhaps this is why no one in my family or circle of friends has yet been able to sell me on the idea of Facebook or Twitter.  Born with a genetic physical deformity and the target of bullying from my earliest years, I determined then never to allow myself to waste time on either self-pity or loneliness.  Direct confrontation of my "problem"?  Unavoidable.  And while I have been overcome at times by both anxiety and depression, I can honestly say that I have rarely, if ever, felt lonely.

    The ability to discern the significant from the trivial is a great gift.  Unfortunately, living in a culture which worships the trivial on a multitude of levels means that one must actively seek a lifestyle which is often out of sync, but the reward is an honesty which is the foundation for a life without loneliness.

  3. And I might add, ironically more "connected" than when she was "connected" with that phone.

  4. Richard-

    Eli Pariser captures a related concern in this TED speech:

    Algorithms authored by Facebook and Google are putting us into "information bubbles." Where news is concerned, they are effectively replacing the role of 20th century editors in the mainstream media. They control what (and who, among our Facebook "friends") we see and hear.

    I think something similar is going on with the connected/disconnection people get out of Facebook. Part of the un/reality of social networking is that it is filtering out information and social discomfort that we would otherwise have to confront in the real world.

    Which leaves me wondering, how much of this has to do with the medium itself and how much of it has to do with the (1) temptation to block out things that are hard, but good for our relationships and growth, and (2) external editorial control that "customizes" our online worlds...?

  5. More related to your previous posts on this, but demonstrates the 'extension of ourselves' theory to the extreme: boy sells kidney to pay for i-pad 2...

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