Is Facebook as Effective as The Real World in Making People Feel Connected?
Written by Laurane Sailou
“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” (Facebook’s mission statement, www.facebook.com). But does it, really?
Facebook as a major source of life satisfaction
Saying Facebook is a popular social networking tool would be an understatement, when the latest statistics count 1.49 billion monthly active users for the social medium as of June 2015, of which nearly 30% are aged 13 – 24. With research finding meaningful social connections to be a major source of life satisfaction for young people (Amichai-Hamburger, Kingsbury et al. 2012) and to be playing an important role in their psychological wellbeing (Cacioppo and Patrick 2008), it is reasonable to ask whether Facebook-mediated interactions are as effective as face-to-face ones in creating feelings of social connectedness, and thus generally making a Facebook user experience meaningful and emotionally rewarding.
The topic of Facebook and social connectedness remains controversial due to the amount of conflicting findings. Detractors argue that social media are creating, or increasing feelings of social isolation, by taking over the time normally spent socializing face-to-face, and not providing a good enough medium for nurturing meaningful, deep relationships. There is also support for a “Rich gets Richer” theory, stating that Facebook is only really beneficial to those already well socially connected offline (Kraut, Kriesler, et al. 2002).
However, studies supporting the contrary are also prolific, with evidence that online interactions support and enhance face-to-face relationships (Kavanaugh, et al. 2005). Social media usage has also been shown to positively correlate with social capital, self-esteem, and general mental wellbeing (Ellison, et al. 2008). In light of such contradictory results, the present research seeks to explore users’ perception of their social connectedness in offline and online context, focusing on the millennials, one of the most coveted consumer segments around these days.
Data was obtained through an online questionnaire, duly completed by 88 university students. This sample was gender representative of Facebook users (56.8% females, 43.2% males), and the average respondent was between 18 and 22, studying at undergraduate level. The first part of the survey focused on different Facebook usage aspects (e.g. number of Friends accumulated, average time spent daily on Facebook), which was followed by 20 statements evaluating participants’ perception of their relations to others, both offline, and on Facebook. Those statements were assessed on a 5-point Likert scale, from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. Those answers were used to derive a social connected score comprised between 1 and 5, where 5 indicates high social connectedness.
Results showed that 55% of respondents using Facebook sometimes, or frequently choose to contact their friends via Facebook when they could do it in person (phone or face-to-face), thus suggesting that social media interactions tend to replace real world interactions. This is especially true for male (64%) users, and users with over 300 Facebook friends (58%).
The study also shows that perceived online social connectedness is consistently and significantly lower than offline social connectedness, even after controlling for gender and number of friends. However, this difference is more strongly experienced by females who see a 23% decrease in their perceived social connectedness going from offline to online settings, when men only face a 13% decrease. Similarly, users with more than 300 Facebook friends experience a 20% decrease when going online, compared to a lower 14% for participants with fewer Facebook friends.
Such findings are consistent with existing literature on the topic of social networks, and friendships. Indeed, it is argued that social networking sites, by allowing users “to create large and diffuse social networks”, advocate numerous weak social ties instead of fewer, close relationships (Donath and Boyd 2004). This could explain why users with greater number of Facebook friends are found to have lower social connectedness scores online. The literature has also established that men and women use their social network differently: women care about the tightness of social bonds, while men value status and influence (Aldrich 1989, Lee and Robbins 2000). Considering both arguments together shows that the tighter friendships women look for are better nurtured offline, and thus provides valuable insight as to why the gap between females’ offline and online perceived social connectedness was so important.
This study aimed to investigate the potential differences between social connectedness experienced in the context of Facebook and of the real world, and found that people experience a stronger sense of belonging when interacting in offline social networks than when socialising online. It also showed how gender and size of online network could affect the overall social experience. These findings contribute to our growing understanding of emotion, one of the vital considerations when creating, or designing valuable, meaningful experiences.
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