Status Update: What's Facebook's Effect on Kids?

Psychologists see good and bad in social networks. On the bad side, possible links to psychiatric disorders; on the good side, increased empathy.

Some parents wonder if Facebook could be harming our ability to socialize. A handful of psychologists are now starting to ask same the question.

Larry Rosen, author of several books on the psychology of technology, and a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is one of several researchers trying to quantify the psychological effects that Facebook is having on users across generations, with a particular eye toward teens and young adults.

Rosen has already collected some early evidence that suggests that Facebook use may somehow be connected to narcissistic behavior, alcohol dependence, and other psychiatric disorders. But he has also found evidence that Facebook use may be associated with increases in virtual empathy—the ability to consider someone else’s emotional state from a distance.

Rosen has carried out surveys measuring a person’s (self-reported) level of Facebook use—how often he or she reads wall postings, posted photographs, etc.—along with his or her psychological state, using classical psychological questionnaires, as well as an analysis of his or her Facebook posts.

Rosen presented preliminary findings from several research projects during a talk titled “Poke Me: Kids and Social Networking” at the American Psychological Association Convention in Washington, D.C., this weekend. His was not the only talk to address this issue; “social media and technology” was one of the key subject areas of this year’s convention, which gathered leading researchers from around the world.

Rosen’s work is part of a broader debate over what effect the Internet is having on our minds. While some observers suggest that microblog posts, social networking updates, and other bite-sized forms of expression and communication could be making us less able to think deeply, others argue that these technologies are simply being exploited by our brains in new ways, and say such fears are common with any disruptive new technology.

Rosen’s work focuses on the differences between generations, and on the way technology affects kids. “All of these technologies have to be evaluated as they impact your life,” he says. Adults can evaluate and reject various technologies—he offers the example of people turning down Google+ invites—but kids lack the experience and self-control to do so, he says. They may be more tech-savvy than their parents, but they are also under greater social pressure to engage with the next big thing, Rosen argues.

Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who specializes in the social impact of technology, suggests that parents’ worries about the effects of social networks on children may be overblown. “While changes to the technological environment real are and do have important consequences, today’s youth are interested in very similar things compared to past generations and are not some sort of alien race unlike any that walked the earth,” she says.

Rosen cautions that his work thus far has only shown a connection between certain kinds of behavior and Facebook use, not causation. Whether Facebook encourages narcissistic tendencies in its users, for example, or happens to attract narcissistic users in the first place, is not clear yet.

At the American Psychological Association Convention, Elizabeth Carll, a clinical psychologist and author, presented a talk on the effects of cyberbullying and online harassment. She offered the observation, based on experiences at her own clinical practice, that the negative effects of cyberbullying can be more severe than face-to-face confrontations. The thing that makes it different, she says, is the fact that it’s impossible to escape. “Cyberstalking is 24/7,” she says. “The world knows instantly. If your boyfriend has a compromising picture of you, he can send it to anyone.”

Some psychologists are more skeptical about the impact of recent technological shifts. John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University, says “the current fascination with technology and social media is, in my opinion, just a stage we’re going through … Over time, as the technology craze starts to quiet down, we’ll realize once again that balance in online/offline activity is as important as any kind of balance in life.”

Michele Strano, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Bridgewater College, says Facebook may simply reinforce existing behavior. “Many of our Facebook friends are people we also interact with in face-to-face environments,” she says. “Thus, our online and offline identities tend to have some consistent threads.”

Ultimately, says Tufekci, the needs of kids today are not all that different from those of kids in the past, Facebook or no: “They want approval of their peers, are often interested in pushing and testing boundaries, and need support and love from their parents as they deal with the pressures and rewards of growing up.”

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