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HandWiki. Social Networking and Psychology. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 23 April 2024).
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Social Networking and Psychology

Social media began in the form of generalized online communities. These online communities formed on websites like in 1994, in 1995, and in 1995. Many of these early communities focused on social interaction by bringing people together through the use of chat rooms. The chat rooms encouraged users to share personal information, ideas, or even personal web pages. Later the social networking community Classmates took a different approach by simply having people link to each other by using their personal email addresses. By the late 1990s, social networking websites began to develop more advanced features to help users find and manage friends. These newer generation of social networking websites began to flourish with the emergence of in 1997, Makeoutclub in 2000, Hub Culture in 2002, and Friendster in 2002. However, the first profitable mass social networking website was the South Korean service, Cyworld. Cyworld initially launched as a blog-based website in 1999 and social networking features were added to the website in 2001. Other social networking websites emerged like Myspace in 2002, LinkedIn in 2003, and Bebo in 2005. In 2009, the social networking website Facebook (launched in 2004) became the largest social networking website in the world. Active users of Facebook increased from just a million in 2004 to over 750 million by the year 2011. Making internet-based social networking both a cultural and financial phenomenon.

online communities social interaction social networking

1. Psychology of Social Networking

A social network is a social structure made up of individuals or organizations who communicate and interact with each other. Social networking sites – such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – are defined as technology-enabled tools that assist users with creating and maintaining their relationships. A study found that middle schooler's reported using social media to see what their friends are doing, to post pictures, and to connect with friends.[1] Human behavior related to social networking is influenced by major individual differences.[2] Meaning that people differ quite systematically in the quantity and quality of their social relationships.[3] Two of the main personality traits that are responsible for this variability are the traits of extraversion and introversion.[2] Extraversion refers to the tendency to be socially dominant, exert leadership, and influence on others.[4] Contrastingly, introversion refers to the tendency of a person to have a disposition of shyness, social phobia, or even avoid social situations altogether, which could lead to a reduction in the number of potential contacts that person may have.[4] These individual differences may result in different social networking outcomes.[5] Other psychological factors related to social media are: depression, anxiety, attachment, self-identity, and the need to belong.

1.1. Neuroscience

Social media and brain function go hand in hand. Our brain is the ‘social organ’ of our bodies and the creator of social media itself. The brain wants to connect with other people, to immerse and understand other people’s experiences through communication, whether that be face to face or through mass media. As it turns out, social media is shaping the structure of our brains over time as the brain learns to respond to culture.[6]

The cells in our brain, known as neurons, communicate by transmitting electrical signals to one another. They serve as pathways to activate certain parts of the brain.[7] The brain adapts when learning a new tool or instrument. It starts to strengthen and build neurons on particular pathways to make certain areas of the brain more efficient than others. As a result of social media, the brain is anatomically being rewired to adapt to this communication tool.[8]

The neural systems being strengthened to support social media use rely on three domains; social cognition, self-referential cognition, and social reward processing.[9]

When someone posts something, they think of how their audience will react, while the audience thinks of the motivations behind posting the information. Both parties are analyzing the other's thoughts and feelings, which coherently rely on multiple network systems of the brain which are: the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, bilateral temporoparietal junction, anterior temporal lobes, inferior frontal gyri, and posterior cingulate cortex. All of these systems work to help us process social behaviors and thoughts drawn out on social media.[9]

Social media requires a great deal of self-referential thought. People use social media as a platform to express their opinions and show off their past and present selves. In other words, as Bailey Parnell said in her Ted Talk, we're showing off our "highlight reel" (4). When receiving feedback from others, we obtain more reflected self-appraisal and then start to compare our social behaviors or our "highlights" to other users. Self-referential thought involves activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. The brain uses these particular systems when thinking of oneself.[10]

Social media also provides us with a constant supply of rewards that keeps us coming back for more. Whenever we receive a like or a new follower, it activates the brain's social reward system which includes the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, and ventral tegmental area.[9]

These areas of the brain become strengthened while other parts of the brain start to weaken.[8] Technology is encouraging us to multi-task, seeing as how easy it is to switch from one task to another by opening another tab or using two devices at once.[11] The brain's hippocampus is mainly associated with memory, particularly long-term memory.[12] In a study done by Russell Poldark, a professor at UCLA, they found that "for the task learned without distraction, the hippocampus was involved. However, for the task learned with the distraction of the beeps, the hippocampus was not involved; but the striatum was, which is the brain system that underlies our ability to learn new skills."[13] The overall result from the study is that multitasking will cause us to rely on the striatum more than the hippocampus, changing the way we learn. The striatum is known to be connected to mainly the brain's reward system.[14] The brain will make the neurons to the striatum strengthen while making the neurons to the hippocampus weaken as a way to make the brain more efficient.[8] Because our brain starts to rely on the striatum more than the hippocampus, it becomes harder for us to process new information. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains, agrees: "What psychologists and brain scientists tell us about interruptions is that they have a fairly profound effect on the way we think. It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing."[15]

1.2. Depression

As the internet first began to grow in popularity, researchers noted an association between increases in internet usage and decreases in offline social involvement and psychological well-being.[16] Investigators explained these findings through the hypothesis that the internet supports poor quality relationships. In light of the recent emergence of online social networking, there has been growing concern of a possible relationship between individuals’ activities on these forums and symptoms of psychopathology, particularly depression.

Research has shown a positive correlation between time spent on social networking sites and depressive symptoms.[17][18] One possible explanation for this relationship is that people use social networking sites as a method of social comparison, which leads to social comparison bias.[19] Adolescents who used Facebook and Instagram to compare themselves with and seek reassurance from other users experienced more depressive symptoms.[20] It is likely, though, that the effects of social comparison on social networking sites is influenced by who people are interacting with on those sites. Specifically, Instagram users who followed a higher percentage of strangers were more likely to show an association between Instagram use and depressive symptoms than were users who followed a lower percentage of strangers.[21]

However, research support for a relationship between online social networking and depression remains mixed. Banjanin and colleagues (2015),[22] for example, found a relationship between increased internet use and depressive symptoms, but no relationship between time spent on social networking sites and depressive symptoms. Several other studies have similarly found no relationship between online social networking and depression.[23][24]

1.3. Suicide

As found in a journal article from the American Academy of Pediatrics cyberbullying can lead to "profound psychosocial outcomes including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and, tragically, suicide.” (800–804). This introduces relationship between social networking and suicide.[25] Cyberbullying on social media has a strong correlation to causes of suicide among adolescents and young adults. Results of a study by Hinduja and Patchin examining a large sample of middle school-aged adolescents found that those who experienced cyberbullying were twice as likely to attempt or be successful in committing suicide.[26]

1.4. Anxiety

Research has also found a positive relationship between use of social media and symptoms of anxiety.[18] Similar to the possible relationship between social networking usage and depression, it is likely that how people are using social media contributes to the nature of the possible relationship between social networking usage and anxiety. Research has demonstrated that social networking sites can be advantageous for individuals experiencing anxiety, as Facebook social support contributed to feelings of well-being in socially anxious individuals.[27]

1.5. Attachment

In psychology, attachment theory is a model that attempts to describe the interpersonal relationships people have throughout their lives. The most commonly recognized four styles of attachment in adults are: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. With the rapid increase in social networking sites, scientists have become interested in the phenomenon of people relying on these sites for their attachment needs. Attachment style has been significantly related to the level of social media use and social orientation on Facebook.[28] Additionally, attachment anxiety has been found to be predictive of less feedback seeking and Facebook usage, whereas attachment avoidance was found to be predictive less feedback seeking and usage.[29] The study found that anxiously attached individuals more frequently comment, "like," and post. Furthermore, the authors suggest that anxious people behave more actively on social media sites because they are motivated to seek positive feedback from others. Despite their attempts to fulfill their needs, data suggests that individuals who use social media to fulfill these voids are typically disappointed and further isolate themselves by reducing their face-to-face interaction time with others.[30]

1.6. Self-Identity

One's self-identity, also commonly known as self-concept, can be defined as a collection of beliefs an individual has about his or herself.[31] It can also be defined as an individual's answer to "Who am I?".[32] Social media offers a means of exploring and forming self-identity, especially for adolescents and young adults. Early adolescence has been found to be the period in which most online identity experimentation occurs, compared to other periods of development.[33][34] Researchers have identified some of the most common ways early adolescents explore identity are through self-exploration (e.g. to investigate how others react), social compensation (e.g. to overcome shyness), and social facilitation (e.g. to facilitate relationship formation).[34][35] Additionally, early adolescents use the Internet more to talk to strangers and form new relationships, whereas older adolescents tend to socialize with current friends." Individuals have a high need for social affiliation but find it hard to form social connections in the offline world, and social media may afford a sense of connection that satisfies their needs for belonging, social feedback, and social validation."[36]

Of the various concepts comprising self-identity, self-esteem and self-image, specifically body image, has been given much attention in regards to its relationship with social media usage. Despite the popularity of social media, the direct relationship between Internet exposure and body image has been examined in only a few studies. In one study looking at over 150 high school students, survey data regarding online social networking use and body image was collected.[37] With students reporting an average of two to three hours per day online, online social media usage has been significantly related to an internalization of thin ideals, appearance comparison, weight dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness. In a more recent study that focused more specifically on Facebook usage in over 1,000 high school girls, the same association between amount of use and body dissatisfaction was found, with Facebook users reporting significantly higher levels of body dissatisfaction than non-users.[38] Current research findings suggest that a negative relationship between self-image and social media usage for adolescents. In other words, the more an adolescent uses social media, the more likely he or she is to feel bad about themselves, more specifically regarding how they look.

2. The Need to Belong

2.1. Belongingness

Belongingness is the personal experience of being involved in a system or group. There are two major components of belongingness which are the feeling of being valued or needed in the group and fitting into the group.[39][40] The sense of belongingness is said to stem from attachment theories.[41] Neubaum and Kramer (2015)[42] state that individuals with a greater desire to form attachments, have a stronger need for belonging in a group.

Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary discussed the need to belong theory in a paper in 1995. They discuss the strong effects of belongingness and stated that humans have a "basic desire to form social attachments."[43] Without social interactions, we are deprived of emotions and are prone to more illness, physical and psychological, in the future.[43] In 2010, Judith Gere and Geoff MacDonald[44] found inconsistencies in the research done on this topic and reported updated findings. Research still supported that lack of social interactions lead to negative outcomes in the future. When these needs were not met, an individual's daily life seemed to be negatively affected. However, questions about an individual's interpersonal problems, such as sensitivity and self-regulation, still seem to be unknown.[44] In today's world, social media may be the outlet in which the need to belong theory is fulfilled for individuals.

2.2. Perceived social Closeness

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. are updated daily to include details of people's personal lives and what they are doing. This in turn gives the perception of being close to people without actually speaking with them. Individuals contribute to social media by ‘liking’ posts, commenting, updating statuses, tweeting, posting photos, videos and more.

Sixty Facebook users were recruited in a study by Neubaum and Kramer (2015)[42] to take part in a series of questionnaires, spend ten minutes on Facebook and then complete a post-Facebook perceptions and an emotional status questionnaires. These individuals perceived more social closeness on Facebook that lead to maintaining relationships. Individuals with a higher need to belong also relied on Facebook, but in more private messages. This allowed these individuals to belong in a one-on-one setting or in a more personal way with a group of members who are more significant to them. Active Facebook users, individuals who posted and contributed to their newsfeed, had a greater sense of social closeness, whereas passive Facebook users, who only viewed posts and did not contribute to the newsfeed, had a lesser sense of social closeness. These findings indicate that social closeness and belonging on social media is dependent on the individual's own interactions and usage style.

2.3. Group Membership

In a study conducted by Cohen & Lancaster (2014),[45] 451 individuals were asked to complete a survey online. The results suggested that social media usage during television viewing made individuals feel like they were watching the shows in a group setting. Different emotional reactions to the show, were found on all social media platforms due to hashtags of the specific show. These emotional reactions were to certain parts of the show, reactions to characters, and commenting on the overall show. In this way, social media enhanced people's social interactions just as if they were face-to-face coviewing television. Individuals with high needs to belong can use social media to participate in social interactions regularly, in a broader sense (Cohen & Lancaster, 2014)[45]


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