People who are more socially isolated in real life tend to be more isolated in the virtual world of social networking web sites like Facebook, new research suggests.
Facebook users in the study who reported feeling anxiety and fear in their face-to-face relationships spent more time on Facebook than their more socially comfortable peers.
But they also had fewer Facebook friends, Louisiana State University doctoral student Pavica Sheldon reports.
The study included 172 Louisiana State students, most of whom were current Facebook users.
"Our results seem to justify the rich-get-richer hypothesis, which states that the Internet primarily benefits extroverted individuals, and that introverts communicate online less often," Sheldon writes in the latest issue of the Journal of Media Psychology.
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21 Million Facebook Users
In the four years since its introduction, Facebook has registered more than 21 million users, most in their teens , 20s, and 30s.
Originally developed as a social networking site for college students, it is now open to anyone. But college students still make up the majority of the site's users.
Sheldon and colleagues conducted their research in an effort to better understand how the site is used.
"Most people who don't use Facebook think it is all about developing new relationships, but that is not what we found," Sheldon tells WebMD.
Ninety-three percent of the students who took part in the study reported having a Facebook account, with the average student spending around 45 minutes on the site each day.
Among the major findings:
- The most often cited reason for using the site was to check up on real-life friends and acquaintances.
- Passing the time or avoiding boredom was cited as a major reason for logging on to Facebook, as was staying in touch with friends.
- Far fewer people reported using the site as a means for developing romantic relationships, finding companionship, relieving loneliness, or meeting more interesting people than they knew in real life.
Satisfaction or lack of satisfaction with face-to face communications did not predict the number of hours spent on Facebook, the number of solely virtual friends the users in the study had, or how satisfied they were with the site.
But students who expressed an unwillingness to communicate face-to-face had fewer Facebook friends than students who communicated easily.
"College students use Facebook in the same way they use interpersonal communications, primarily to maintain their relationships or pass time when bored," Sheldon and colleagues note.
Facebook Friends for Life
Louisiana State student Ana Elena Buleu, who took part in the survey, has about 100 Facebook "friends," all of whom she knows in real life.
The 22-year-old biochemistry major uses the web site to keep in touch with college friends, as well as high school friends still living in Romania, where she grew up.
"I use email mostly for work and I use Facebook for friendships," she tells WebMD. "It is a good way to check in without sending an email."
Scott Golder, who has studied Facebook usage patterns as a research scientist for Hewlett-Packard, found the web site to be an important means of communication among college students across the country.
Golder tells WebMD that for better or worse, web sites like Facebook have the potential to keep people in touch with just about everyone they have ever known.
He says Facebook users tend to add friends, but they rarely remove friends because it is considered rude.
"Maintaining a relationship in the conventional way requires effort," he says. "At different stages o life people tend to have different groups of friends. They lose touch or drift apart, which, in some cases, is a healthy thing."
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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