Selecting what others know about a person on Facebook can boost self esteem.

Cornell University students who spent a few minutes on Facebook updating their profile pages reported self-esteem boosts, according to one of the first published studies to show social media’s psychological benefit.

The research, conducted by two Cornell faculty members from the university’s Social Media Lab, was published this month in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Sixty-three Cornell students participated in the study, with some students placed at computers with access to Facebook and others assigned to computers that were turned off. Some of those blank-screened computers had mirrors placed in front of them.

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The students spent three minutes at their assigned computers.

While students in the mirror and blank screen (control) groups filled out a questionnaire showed “no elevation in self-esteem,” students who logged onto Facebook during the three-minute test “gave much more positive feedback about themselves” on the following questionnaire.

University researchers said the Facebook study could counter popular opinion that social media is a distracting recreational web activity with little or no redeeming value for college students.

“For many people, there’s an automatic assumption that the internet is bad,” said Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor of communication at Cornell’s Social Media Lab, whose research focuses on social networking’s cognitive impact. “This is one of the first studies to show that there’s a psychological benefit of Facebook.”

The Cornell study compared the effects of Objective Self Awareness (OSA) and the Hyperpersonal Model, a theory that claims people’s self esteem is improved when they select which information – including photos and profile information on Facebook – can be seen by the viewing public.

OSA charges that focusing attention on ourselves – as the students did while looking into a mirror for three minutes – can lower self esteem because it makes us aware of our imperfections and shortcomings, according to the Cornell study.

“By providing multiple opportunities for selective self-presentation — through photos, personal details, and witty comments — social-networking sites exemplify how modern technology sometimes forces us to reconsider previously understood psychological processes,” said Amy Gonzales, a Ph.D. student and lead author of the social media research.

Cornell students may have had a little more pep in their step after fiddling with their Facebook profiles, but a Stanford University study released in January showed that happy status updates often have a negative impact on Facebook users scanning their friends’ pages.

The study, titled, “Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions,” posits that viewing positive Facebook statuses “may exacerbate common misperceptions of others’ emotional lives because of the complete control that users have over the public image they project to the world through their photo albums, status updates, friendship networks, and so forth.”

Students who participated in the study consistently overestimated the “number of their peers who were going out and attending parties.”

“A university student who goes out on the weekend to grab a slice of pizza with friends, for example, sees only those fellow students who are also out socializing, not those who are spending their evenings watching television alone in their dorm rooms,” the study said.

Cornell’s research is the latest study to debunk misconceptions about Facebook, which began as a social networking site for college students only.

Students in a University of New Hampshire marketing research course last year surveyed more than 1,100 fellow students about their use of popular social media web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and they found “no correlation between the amount of time students spend using social media and their grades.”

The student researchers classified light users of social media as respondents who spent less than 31 minutes every day on social networking sites. Heavy users, according to the study, spent more than an hour daily on social media sites.

Sixty-three percent of heavy users earned high grades—A’s and B’s—while 65 percent of light users received high marks.

The New Hampshire student study also revealed how ubiquitous Facebook has become among college students.

Ninety-six percent of respondents said they log on to Facebook at least once a day, while 84 percent perused YouTube, and 20 percent read various blogs. A mere 12 percent used MySpace daily, and 10 percent said they log on to LinkedIn.


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