Food and diet

Social networking 'makes people snack more'

"Facebook 'encourages unhealthy snacking'," according to The Daily Telegraph. It reports on a study that apparently found that socialising with close friends online on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter raises levels of self-esteem, but at the expense of self-control.

The researchers wanted to test whether a positive experience of social media networking with close friends (as opposed to acquaintances) increased self-esteem but lowered self-control. They ran five associated tests to:

  • see if social networking with close friends increased feelings of self-esteem
  • see if networking involving reporting individual positive experiences, rather than reading about other people, led to higher levels of self-esteem
  • see if increased levels of self-esteem associated with social networking led to a corresponding drop in self-control, as defined by making unhealthy food choices
  • see if the drop in self-control would make people less willing to complete a mentally challenging task
  • look at larger survey data to see if there were associations between social networking and reports of lower self-control in other areas of their life, such as having higher credit card debts

Based on the results of the testing, the researchers argue that all five tests had positive results. However, despite their arguments, their experimental design cannot provide definite answers about the links between social networking, levels of self-esteem and self-control.

However, it provides useful and intriguing insights into the possible psychological effects of social networking.

Where did the story come from?

The study was written by Keith Wilcox of Columbia University and Andrew T Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh. The research was funded by INSEAD Alumni Fund, the Babson College Faculty Research Fund, and the Katz Fellowship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Research.

The Daily Telegraph coverage is broadly representative of the findings of this research, but does not make it clear that these interesting findings are based on experiments that cannot provide definite answers.

What kind of research was this?

The researchers say that online social networks are now used by hundreds of millions of people every day, but little is known about their effect on people's behaviour in the real world. The study involved five experiments looking at the effects social networking may have on feelings of self-esteem and self-control. They also looked at related lifestyle factors that may indicate lower self-control, such as body mass index (BMI) and credit card debts.

Their main theory was that sharing experiences with close social contacts may enhance levels of self-esteem, which would result in a number of positive social behaviours. But while this may seem an entirely positive change, the enhanced self-esteem could have a detrimental effect on self-control, such as causing people to make more self-indulgent food choices.

The research will be of interest to social researchers. But despite providing a useful insight into the possible psychological effects of social networking, its experimental design involving small numbers of participants cannot provide definite answers.

What did the research involve?

Five studies were designed to investigate the researchers' theories:

Study one

Study one aimed to explore the effects that browsing a social network has on self-esteem. In particular, researchers looked at the influence that the strength of the social contact had upon this, regardless of whether or not they were networking with people that they were close to. The experiment included 100 US Facebook users who were randomised to either zero or five minutes browsing their social network, and also randomised to either focus on their close social contacts or their weak social contacts. After this the Facebook users completed questions on a validated self-esteem scale about feelings about themselves. 

Study two

Study two followed on from the first study using the same 100 participants, but looked at how self-esteem was influenced by the type of information that was being shared and whether this was personal to the individual. They were asked to look at either the information that they were sharing with other people in their social network, or to look at the information that others in their social network were sharing with them. The researchers looked at the proportion of all of their contacts that they regarded to be close social ties, to again look at the influence that the strength of the social ties had.

Study three and four

Studies three and four looked at the effect that social networking had upon self-control and how this was related to feelings of self-esteem. The studies included 84 people. After browsing their social networks, they were then asked to complete a consumer products survey that asked them to choose, for example, between a healthy option (a granola bar) and an unhealthy option (chocolate chip cookies).

In the fourth study, after networking the participants were asked to complete a mental task. The researchers looked at how networking influenced their food choices and persistence with the mental task, again looking at how this was influenced by feelings of self-esteem after networking and the proportion of their networking contacts that they considered to be close.

Study five

Study five involved 541 Facebook users completing an online survey which aimed to explore the relationship between online social network use and offline behaviours associated with poor self-control, such as having higher weight and credit card debts.

What were the basic results?

Study one

Study one found that browsing through a social network enhanced self-esteem compared with not networking, and that focusing on strong social contacts improved self-esteem compared with focusing on weaker social acquaintances.

Study two

Study two followed on from this finding, but found that feelings of positive self-esteem were related to the type of information being looked at. When the individual was browsing information that they had shared (such as positive experiences that they had related), this enhanced their self-esteem more than looking at information that others had posted. Those with stronger social ties had greater self-esteem.

Study three and four

Studies three and four found that networking with close social contacts lowered an individual's self control, causing them to pick unhealthier food options and to have lower persistence when asked to complete a mental task. These detrimental effects on self-control were mediated by their levels of self-esteem after networking (higher self-esteem related to less self-control).

Study five

The survey in study five found that higher levels of social networking with close social contacts was associated with:

  • higher BMI
  • higher levels of binge eating
  • higher levels of credit card debt

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that self-esteem is enhanced when individuals focus on social networking with their close social ties. This increase in self-esteem in turn results in reduced self-control. From their additional experiments, the authors suggest that higher social networking with close social contacts is associated with a higher BMI and higher levels of credit card debt.

The researchers suggest that these findings may have implications for policy makers, "because self-control is an important mechanism for maintaining social order and well-being".


As the researchers say, using online social networks such as Facebook has become part of the daily routine of hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, little is known about the psychological effects of such use.

These small experimental studies suggest that, overall, social networking improves self-esteem, particularly when the person has a greater number of contacts that they consider to be close and when the information they are viewing is related to themselves, such as personal experiences they have related. This seems quite a plausible finding.

The researchers then went on to report that social networking with close contacts and greater self-esteem were associated with making unhealthier food choices directly afterwards, as well as less persistence when asked to perform a mental task.

A supplemental cross-sectional survey also found that networking, particularly when the individual has a high number of social contacts, is associated with other "low self-control" behaviours, such as higher BMI and higher credit card debts.

Overall, the findings will be of interest to social researchers and provide a useful insight into the possible psychological and behavioural effects of social networking.

However, the studies involved small numbers of people and experimental scenarios that may not reflect real-life choices or situations, such as asking participants to complete a consumer survey or perform a mental task.

Despite the limitations, this is an interesting study and its findings are likely to lead to further psychological and social study. But, taken alone, they cannot provide definite answers on the effect our social networking habits have on our lives.

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