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Does social media have any social benefits?

17 May 2018
We know that social media might be bad for democracy. Are the occasional feel-good posts worth it? An ERC-funded researcher has been studying the data

By Florin Zubascu

Facebook is bad for your political health, right? At least, that’s the news in the US, Britain and elsewhere. But there is also a silver lining: research suggests that liking, commenting and sharing positive posts by close friends can make social media users happier.

Under a grant from the European Research Council, Sonja Utz of the University of Tübingen in Germany and colleagues has been studying how social media is shaping our relationships with others.

In one study, the research team surveyed online volunteers about their reactions to posts on Facebook and other social media.  They found that most social media users report positive emotions, while only about 12 per cent reported feeling envious, jealous or annoyed by the content shared online. Over 60 per cent of respondents said using social media makes them feel more connected, happy and informed.

But that feel-good factor is stronger if the posting is with close friends, the research shows.  The closer the relationship with the poster, the happier participants were after reading a positive post  - and the sadder after reading a negative one.

For instance, she looked at what she calls “envy-inducing” posts: beautiful holiday snaps, a new iPhone and the like. On seeing them, a social media user could feel benign envy (“good for you!”) or jealousy (“you stink!”) The question under study: How does your reaction depend on your social network? The result: The closer the poster is to you, the more likely you feel good about it.

“Envy-inducing” mock-up posts were introduced to the feeds of social media users to compare the strength of digital friendships with levels of happiness.

 “People are much more likely to be happy or to experience benign envy, the more positive emotion,” said Utz.

And it isn’t all good. Facebook users get more social support by using the network, but that doesn't necessarily result in “a decrease of stress or an increase in life satisfaction,” says Utz. In fact, her research shows that Facebook users are a bit more stressed than those who didn’t bother to set up an account.

LinkedIn and Twitter users report higher professional informational benefits, whereas Facebook users score lower.

Not all social media are alike, however. On other platforms, such as Linkedin and Twitter, weak connections are more important, and users care mostly about the informational benefits of their use of social media. “When it comes to finding a job or asking for advice on professional matters, weaker ties matter more,” says Utz. Also, by regularly skimming through updates, social media users are building up their ambient awareness, a form of superficial knowledge about the people in their networks.

Whatever the benefits, inappropriate use of social media platforms is not recommended. Utz believes that users with low self-esteem should not use Facebook in a passive way. The active use of Facebook is not harmful; “it has a positive effect only if you post and interact,” says Utz.

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