Does Facebook help relationships, or hurt them?


All those folks checking Facebook on their cellphones — rather than talking to the person next to them — could actually be strengthening their relationships with friends and family, new research suggests.

But other studies present evidence that social networking can also cause a slew of negative ramifications, including addictive behaviour.

A new University of Texas at Austin study called “Got Facebook? Investigating What’s Social about Social Media,” says that use of the social networking site among college students and recent graduates is fuelled by a desire to stay connected.

The study, led by S. Craig Watkins, an associate professor of radio, television and film, surveyed 900 subjects across the United States about how and why they use Facebook.

When asked to choose the top three activities they engage in on Facebook, the subjects overwhelmingly selected those that allow them to keep up with the goings-on in their friends’ and families’ lives. They also liked sharing information about themselves.

When asked to choose their top Facebook activities:

66 per cent chose “posting status updates”
60 per cent chose “posting comments/likes to my profile”
49 per cent chose “posting messages and other content to friends’ profiles”
When asked about what type of communication is most important to them, 47 per cent cited communication with friends who live in a different state or country as “very important,” while 28 per cent said communicating with friends who live in the same city is “very important.” Thirty-five per cent said communicating with family members is “very important.”

“Our findings indicate that Facebook is not supplanting face-to-face interactions among friends, family and colleagues,” Watkins said in a statement. “In fact, we believe there is sufficient evidence that social media afford opportunities for new expressions of friendship, intimacy and community.”

Indeed, the survey’s results showed that while males and females use Facebook differently, they both want to share personal information.

For example, men like to share news and updates about tasks they are completing, and are less likely to post photographs to their profile page. However, when they do post photos, they are often personal in nature, relating to their hobbies or scenery from places they have visited.

Women, on the other hand, are far more likely to share photographs from family events, saying they find such images an important way to share fun and personal experiences with their friends.

Overall, 87 per cent of respondents said they posted pictures to Facebook ahead of any other media, such as videos or website links.

The downside of social media

Despite this promising research out of Texas, other recent studies have made headlines for suggesting that social media can lead to a variety of negative ramifications, from asthma to symptoms of addiction.

Last week, Italian doctors reported the case of a young man who was suffering from asthma attacks that appeared to be triggered by looking at his ex-girlfriend’s profile on Facebook, which included numerous new male friends.

The heartbroken teen began suffering difficult or laboured breathing, known as dyspnea, every time he logged on to Facebook. When he quit using the social media site entirely, his asthma attacks stopped.

The doctors concluded that the stress of viewing his lost love on Facebook caused the teen to hyperventilate. While some experts suggested the laboured breathing did not necessarily equal an asthma attack, the doctors concluded that social networks could be a “new source of psychological stress” that serves as a risk factor for asthmatics.

But social media may also pose a threat to those who would appear to be a little more lucky in love.

A recent Angus Reid survey conducted for Bacardi found that Canadians may be ignoring their significant others to spend more time using social media sites.

According to the survey, 75 per cent of Canadians admit that checking social media sites is the last thing they do at night. And when they wake up? Partners are still getting the cold shoulder, as reaching for an electronic device to check email is first on the to-do list.

In Toronto and Montreal, a whopping 80 per cent of people grab their mobile phones rather than their partners first thing in the morning.

That survey didn’t analyze whether having to check email or Facebook before doing anything else constitutes addictive behaviour. However, another recent study proved that college-aged social media users can suffer serious withdrawal symptoms if these sites are forbidden for even a mere 24 hours.

For their study, researchers from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) asked 200 students from the University of Maryland to stop using all forms of media, including phones, computers and iPods, for one day.

The students were then asked to report how they felt during the experiment, and the results surprised even the researchers. While they knew the students would be less-than-keen on giving up their gadgets, they were shocked that the students reported suffering from a variety of withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fidgeting and feelings of isolation.

Many of them couldn’t stand the pressure, and gave in to their desire to check email or look up sports scores or other news.

“Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” one student said. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”

The findings don’t surprise Dr. Bruce Ballon, head of adolescent clinical and educational services for problem gambling, gaming and Internet use at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Ballon, who is in the process of investigating why youth with underlying mental health issues appear to be more vulnerable to online gambling and Internet addictions, said students coming of age today are doing so in a highly connected world.

“So it’s like taking away a sense almost,” Ballon told in a telephone interview. “Some of them think, ‘I’m so connected and I have to get a lot of information through this media.’ Taking away something that they’re used to, it does make sense that they’re going to feel it in different ways.”

Ballon said it’s clear that the Internet and social networking sites can be used for a variety of good, from communicating to news gathering to organizing flash mobs around the world.

But he also said the easy access has laid the groundwork for unhealthy relationships with technology.

But rather than cut it out of people’s lives entirely, guidelines for the appropriate use of social media in homes, schools and workplaces would allow for their more productive, and measured, use.

“One of the greatest gaps I find is just our socio-cultural issues that no one’s taking stands against it, not to say we must not use any of it, but what’s the healthy way to do this?” Ballon said. “What’s the content, the access, the time, the responsibilities of parents, schools, agencies? Just basic things we do around drug use and other things like that.”

Ballon is clear he is not suggesting that video games, the Internet or social media sites need to be restricted like controlled substances.

But there must be balance, he says.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, just take it all away and they’ll get better.’ That’s nice, but at some point we’re going to have to reintroduce it because, to let people have a fighting chance in our society, they have to have a healthy relationship with technology,” Ballon said. “It’s all about a healthy relationship with any sort of behaviour.”
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This post was submitted by Mudit Agrawal.

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