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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Humans like being around other humans. We are extraordinarily social animals. In fact, we are so social, that simply interacting with other people has been shown to be use similar brain areas as those involved with the processing of very basic rewards such as food, suggesting that interacting with people tends to make us feel good.
However, it doesn’t take much reflection to notice that the way people interact with each other has radically changed in recent years. Much of our contact happens not face-to-face, but rather while staring at screen-based digital representations of each other, with Facebook being the most prominent example. This raises a very fundamental question – how does online interaction with other people differ from interacting with people in person?
One possible way these two interaction styles might differ is through how rewarding we find them to be. Does interacting with Facebook make us feel good as does interacting with people in real life? A recent paper suggests that the answer is “probably not.” In fact, the data from this paper suggest that the more we interact with Facebook, the worse we tend to feel.
Researchers recruited participants from around a college campus. The participants initially completed a set of questionnaires, including one measuring their overall satisfaction with life. Following this, participants were sent text messages 5 times a day for two weeks. For each text, participants were asked to respond to several questions, including how good they felt at that moment, as well as how much they had used Facebook, and how much they had experienced direct interaction with others, since the last text. At the end of the two weeks, participants completed a second round of questionnaires. Here, the researchers once again measured participants’ overall satisfaction with life.
So, how does online interaction make us feel? The researchers attempted to answer this question by examining the data in two different ways. First, they looked at how the participant’s moment-to-moment feelings, or affect, changed between each text message. The data showed that as participants reported using Facebook more often in between any two texts, the more their affect tended to change for the negative. In other words, across the two weeks, increased Facebook use was associated with declines in affect. Interestingly, this relationship disappeared when participants had very little direct social contact, and was much stronger when they had quite a lot of social contact.
In the second set of analyses, the researchers looked at whether each individual’s average amount of Facebook use over the course of two weeks was related to their overall life satisfaction at the end of the study. People who tended to use Facebook more also tended to have larger declines in life satisfaction at the end of the study.
However, before you pull the plug on your web-based social networking, you should also note the limitations of this study. The biggest caveat: this is a correlational study. Although the authors have demonstrated that increased use of Facebook predicted declines in affect and well-being (and, in a separate analysis, showed that affect did not predict use of Facebook), it could be that there is some other variable driving these associations. Without an experiment in which one manipulates how frequently individuals use Facebook, it isn’t possible to be sure of the causal relationship.
Second, it should be noted that the average age of participants in this study was just over 19 years old. Given that usage of online social networks almost certainly differs dramatically between different age groups, it would be interesting to see if these findings hold up for older populations. Similarly, one should be careful about generalizing the results of this study to other online social media platforms. Perhaps these findings are specific to Facebook, and if the researchers had investigated usage of Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, or some other platform, they might have found a different relationship.
A third caveat has to do with the way in which the researchers measured their variables. Since participants were reporting on their mood and Facebook use at the same time, it could be that reflecting on how they felt could have changed how much they remembered using Facebook. For example, if a participant felt bad at that moment, that may have lead them to overestimate how much time they had spent on Facebook in the last few hours.
Despite these limitations, the study addresses a pressing question about the way our social lives are structured, and provides some intriguing evidence that social interaction online may be associated with reduced well-being. The internet is not going anywhere, and as the proportion of people connected to the web rises, so too does its importance as central part of our social world.
So, although you may feel a sense of obligation to wish your office-mate or next-door-neighbor a very happy birthday on Facebook, maybe it would be good to try a different approach. Forget the canned Facebook message, and take them to get a cup of coffee. Stop by and invite them to dinner. See if they’ll join you for a walk. It remains to be definitively established that Facebook itself is a problem, but real-life interaction is absolutely something our extraordinarily social species benefits from, and we should make every attempt to maximize our intake of this form of socialization.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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