Study: Looking at Own Facebook Profile Bad for Brain

After spending five minutes looking at their own profiles, students did significantly worse on a simple math test.
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PROBLEM: The amount of control people have over their social media profiles, posits one psychological theory of the online persona, allows them to present a highly specific, carefully curated version of themselves to the world. On Facebook, consciously or not, we have the power to only share that which makes us look good: fun things we've been up to, or pictures we just happen to look great in, with the bad ones deleted forever. But people understand they're not usually as great as they make themselves appear online, right?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had 159 undergrads spend five minutes either clicking through their own Facebook profile, or a stranger's. They then completed an exercise designed to measure their self-esteem, in which the researchers assessed how quick they were to associate themselves with a list of positive and negative adjectives. Immediately afterwards, they took part in what they were told was an unrelated experiment: a cognitive ability test in which they counted down from 1,978, by intervals of seven, as quickly as possible for two minutes.

RESULTS: Looking at one's own Facebook profile (instead of a stranger's) provided a significant self-esteem boost. It also led to people getting through less of the counting: although they were just as likely to provide the correct answers, people who looked at their own profiles were about 15 percent slower to to do so, getting through significantly fewer rounds of subtraction.

IMPLICATIONS: The trickery we employ to make ourselves look good to others on Facebook also seems to work on ourselves, boosting our own self esteem. The authors take this further, arguing that Facebook stoked the participants' egos so well that they then became complacent. In their interpretation, these induced feelings of self-worth backfire, by discouraging people from thinking it's necessary to prove themselves in other ways -- like by trying hard to do well on a math test. An alternate explanation? Maybe they just resented being torn away from their online social world so much so that they had trouble concentrating on anything else.


The full study, "Feeling Better But Doing Facebook Self-Presentation on Implicit Self-Esteem and Cognitive Task Performance," is published in the journal Media Psychology.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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