Research finds social media users actually calm down

January 12, 2018 by Kathleen Maclay, University of California - Berkeley
Credit: iStock

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people tend to wind down rather than whip themselves into a frenzy while browsing Facebook and Twitter, according to a prize-winning dissertation by a newly minted Ph.D. from UC Berkeley's School of Information.

iSchools Inc., a consortium of more than 80 universities and other institutions on five continents, announced this week that its 2018 Doctoral Dissertation Award goes to Galen Panger, who earned his Ph.D. last year.

Reached at his new post at Google, where he researches user experience, Panger explained his findings.

"I think most wouldn't associate the word 'calm' with social media," he said. "But one of the more robust findings of the dissertation is that people tend to wind down – feel more relaxed, sleepy, bored – when they browse social media, both Facebook and Twitter."

Emotional contagion: wrong or just overblown?

The issue of the role of emotion in social media, he said, is enormously important.

Early in his dissertation, Panger noted that "there is no topic more central to our highest hopes or deepest fears for social media than emotion. Emotion is the outrage and hope that fuels social media social movements from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, and it is the hostility that silenced women in Gamergate.

"Emotion is the sadness that spreads through social media upon the death of a celebrity or in the wake of another mass shooting. Emotion is the happy life we are concerned with portraying to our friends, the moments of satisfaction we cannot wait to tell the world about, and the envy of receiving the highlights of our friends' lives while we carry on with ordinary life."

He noted that his finding that people wind down while on Facebook and Twitter runs counter to a prevailing theory of " contagion," which implies that if status updates are wound up, people browsing those updates will feel that way too.

"So, either is wrong, or it's just not potent enough to overcome situational factors that may be associated with browsing social media, like reclining in bed or waiting for the train," Panger said.

Online disinhibition, Exhibit A

And, there is evidence that people tend to express more anger and disgust on Twitter and Facebook than they experience in daily life, Panger said. This and other evidence, he said, supports the theory that people may be less restrained in how they express themselves online, at least to some extent.

"Certainly, Donald Trump seems like Exhibit A of online disinhibition, but he's pretty angry, resentful and unrestrained in life, so it's tough to blame Twitter for everything we see there," he said.

Overall, Panger said, the picture is pretty nuanced, as social media users seem both more inhibited and more disinhibited, in different ways, in how they express themselves online.

"One thing I hope people feel as they read the dissertation is some reassurance that social is not a terribly warped representation of us and is not doing extreme things to our emotions," offered Panger.

"The effects are subtler," he said. "It turns out, for example, that the calm and basic pleasantness of , on average, is reflected in how people tweet on Twitter or post on Facebook. Imagine that!"

Being mindful

On the other hand, he acknowledged that his research found a "slight tilt" toward negative emotion when people browse .

Panger found Facebook posts tend to be more positive than emotional in general, with posts with photos of ourselves among the most positive. There is evidence in his dissertation and in other research that this spreads envy, a potential source of resentment and antisocial behavior.

"One implication for the general population is to be mindful about spreading envy with your Facebook posts," advised Panger. "I think anything we can do to reduce the resentment floating around right now would be a good thing."

Explore further: Materialists collect Facebook friends and spend more time on social media

Related Stories

If Facebook use causes envy, depression could follow

February 3, 2015

Browsing Facebook has become a daily activity for hundreds of millions of people. Because so many people engage with the website daily, researchers are interested in how emotionally involved Facebook users can be with the ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.