Posting on Facebook is an easy way to connect with people, but it also can be a means to alienate them. That can be particularly troublesome for those with low self-esteem.
People with poor self-image tend to view the glass as half empty. They complain a bit more than everyone else, and they often share their negative views and feelings when face to face with friends and acquaintances.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, wondered whether those behavior patterns would hold true online. They published their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
"People with low self-esteem tend to be very cautious and self-protective," says one of the researchers, psychologist Amanda L. Forest. "It's very important to them to gain others' acceptance and approval. ... So given that, we thought people with low self-esteem might censor what they're saying to present a kind of positive and likable self-image on Facebook."
She and fellow psychologist Joanne V. Wood collected the 10 most recent status updates from 177 undergraduate volunteers who had completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. A team of objective "readers" then rated the updates based on how positive or negative they were.
People with low self-esteem posted far more negative updates than those with high self-esteem. Forest says they described a host of unhappy sentiments, from seemingly minor things like having a terrible day or being frustrated with class schedules to more extreme feelings of rage and sorrow.
On the other hand, those with a healthy dose of self-esteem often wrote about being happy, excited or thankful for something.
When researchers asked people rating the updates if they wanted to get to know those who wrote the negative posts, the answer was a resounding no.
Researchers even looked at actual Facebook friends because, Forest says, "you might think that a real friend would care if you're expressing negativity." It turned out actual friends didn't like the negative posts, either. The posts actually backfired, neither winning the author new friends nor generating good feelings.
Even for people with high self-esteem, aspects of Facebook can be difficult, according to mental health professionals — for example, if other people get lots of "likes" or thumbs-up on their posts and yours don't, or if friends post photos that you're not in.
The bottom line for everyone — no matter how much self-esteem you have — is to be selective about what you put on Facebook, says Dr. Mike Brody, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland and in private practice. Especially since posts live in cyberspace forever.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, distraction aside, for many the benefit of being connected is, of course, being connected to family, friends, colleagues. But for some people, that's not necessarily a good thing. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on what Facebook can mean for people with low self-esteem.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: People with low self-esteem tend to see the glass half empty, and they often share their negative feelings with their friends in person. So researchers wondered if they share their low self-esteem online as well.
Amanda Forest is a psychology researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
AMANDA FOREST: People with low self-esteem tend to be very cautious and self-protective. So, it's very important to them to gain others' acceptance and approval and they really want to avoid being rejected. So, given that, we thought perhaps people with low self-esteem might censor what they're saying to present a kind of positive and likable self-image on Facebook.
NEIGHMOND: So, Forest collected status updates from 177 student volunteers. The updates were rated on how positive or negative they were. It turned out people with low self-esteem posted lots of unhappy updates.
FOREST: Things like what a terrible day. They might have said that they were frustrated because the classes they had wanted to take were all reserved. Or upset because the TV show they were hoping to watch had been a rerun. Some people were just quite extreme and said they were filled with rage and sorrow or felt hollow inside.
NEIGHMOND: On the other hand, people with high self-esteem posted lots of positive updates, like being happy, excited or thankful for something.
When researchers asked people rating the updates if they wanted to get to know those who wrote the negative posts, the answer was a resounding no. Researchers even looked at actual Facebook friends...
FOREST: Because you might think that, you know, a real friend would care if you're expressing negativity, might be a little bit more sensitive and less likely to say oh, you know, I don't want to hear this than a completely stranger would.
NEIGHMOND: But no, the actual friends didn't like the negative posts much either. The posts actually backfired, not winning new friends or generating good feelings. Psychologists say even for people with high self-esteem, aspects of Facebook can be difficult. For example, when everybody else gets lots of likes or thumbs-up on a posts and you don't.
John Schultz is a 24-year-old law student who recently deleted his Facebook account - too public and too much of a distraction, he says.
JOHN SCHULTZ: And you posted something or put up something and nobody liked it or nobody recommended it, that you feel that your idea was worthless and nobody really valued it or you've made people mad.
NEIGHMOND: And when friends plaster photos across Facebook walls that can be equally upsetting, says Schultz, if you're not in the photos.
SCHULTZ: So, if friends went some place or to a concert or a movie and you weren't invited or you were working, you find out much more quickly that you weren't a part of that group and it starts to feel like you were specifically excluded or, at minimum, forgotten about.
NEIGHMOND: Made even worse, he says, because everybody can see that you weren't part of the group.
SCHULTZ: And especially in high school when where you were, who you were with was probably more important than anything else at that time.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Mike Brody is a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland and in private practice.
DR. MIKE BRODY: This is a time in life where kids, in terms of development, are moving away from their family. Friends become much more important. It's very, very important to be chosen, not just in terms of romantic interest but also in terms of friendships.
NEIGHMOND: Bottom line for everyone, says Brody, no matter how much self-esteem you have, be selective - especially since posts live in cyberspace forever.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.