Facebook or Face Time?

Building relationships through social networking sites

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Ever since the internet went public, there’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. One of the greatest fears is that the wonders of the World Wide Web will seduce people into spending all their time online, forsaking face-to-face relationships altogether.

While some research has supported this notion, most studies have produced mixed results. Some people do spend an inordinate amount of time on social networking sites to the detriment of in-person interactions. Many of these are likely to suffer from extreme social anxiety. While they feel safe relating to strangers online, they wouldn’t dare initiate encounters with new people face-to-face.

However, other studies have shown that socially active people use Facebook and similar media not as a substitute for face-to-face interactions but rather to enhance them. That is, social networking sites become a tool for contacting friends and arranging face-to-face meetings with them.

Using Facebook for maintaining your social network is great if you’ve already got one. But what if you’re an introvert trying to break out of your shell and meet some new people? Can Facebook help you make friends that you’d actually want to interact with in real life? These are the questions explored in a recent study by Washington State University psychologist Alexander Spradlin and his colleagues.

Spradlin points out that there are two theories about how Facebook facilitates the building and maintenance of social networks. One theory is that the rich get richer on social networking sites. In other words, those people who already have good face-to-face social skills can leverage the internet to enhance the friendships they already have as well as to create new ones.

Highly extraverted Facebook users know how to expand their social networks by making new acquaintances online first before meeting face to face. This can work through initiating contacts with strangers, as in the case of online dating sites. But it can also occur through online introductions, as when online friends-of-friends get to know one another. In other words, they make new friends online much the same way they do in real life.

The other theory is that the poor get richer. The idea here is that the online environment, with its interaction at a distance, provides a safe space for those with social phobias to get to know persons they’d otherwise never meet. Once they’ve made a deep personal connection with a new friend online, they now have the motivation to overcome their anxieties and move the relationship to a face-to-face status. Thus, introverts benefit from the support of social networking sites in building friendships that they’d never be able to pull off in real life.

To this discussion, I’d like to add a third theory about the relationship between social networking sites and face-to-face interactions, namely that the poor stay poor. That is to say, the socially awkward resort to the internet for some semblance of a social life, but they never move beyond that. Some psychologists point to the incel movement as evidence that the poor stay poor—wasting their days masturbating to porn and trolling social media. However, I suspect that incel voices are much louder than their numbers warrant.

At any rate, Spradlin and his colleagues conducted an online study to test whether people use Facebook to build social relationships or as a proxy for them. The participants consisted of 855 college students with active Facebook accounts who responded to a series of questionnaires:

  • Media and technology usage and attitudes. The respondents were surveyed about the amount of time they spent on Facebook and the kinds of activities they engaged in there, such as posting status updates and photos as well as clicking “like” on other people’s posts and pictures.
  • Face-to-face communication. Next, the participants were asked about the amount of time they spent each day engaged in various kinds of face-to-face interactions with other people. These included family members, friends, intimate partners, classmates, roommates, and coworkers.
  • Personality traits. Respondents completed a 60-item test that assessed them according to the Big Five model of personality. This is the standard theory of personality, and it posits that each person differs along five dimensions: Openness to new experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion (with the low end of this scale indicating introversion), Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (emotional instability).

An initial analysis of the data showed that as Facebook time goes up, so do face-to-face interactions. In other words, the fear-mongering about today’s youth spending all their time online and becoming socially inept simply isn’t supported by these data. Instead, it appears that they’re using Facebook to maintain their real-world social interactions. For the sake of discussion, let's call this the Facebook-to-face-time ratio.

When the researchers looked at the correlations between the Facebook-face-time ratio and each of the five personality traits, the only one to stand out was extraversion. At first glance, this result seems to support the rich-get-richer theory, namely that the more extraverted you are, the more you use Facebook and the more you interact face-to-face with your friends. However, further analysis told a different story.

It’s true that people high on the extraversion scale generally spent a lot of time on Facebook and face-to-face with friends. But it was the people low on the extraversion scale—in other words, the introverts—who got a social boost from social media. That is to say, an increase in Facebook use led to an increase in face-to-face interactions, but only among introverts. In the case of extraverts, however, there was no relationship between time spent on Facebook and the time spent with friends.

This result lends support to the poor-get-richer theory, which states that introverts use social media as an aid toward building real-life relationships. However, the researchers do warn that this study was correlational in nature, meaning that we can’t infer causation. For instance, it could be the case that those introverts who have a few friends already are encouraged to use Facebook to keep in touch with them. This could even lead to a feedback effect, whereby spending more time on social media leads to meeting more people online who eventually become friends in real life. More research is needed to tease out these possibilities.

The current study as well as plenty of other research on social media and social networking clearly demonstrate that Facebook fear-mongering is unwarranted. Humans are by nature social animals, and they’ll always find ways to connect with each other.

Each generation makes use of the technology at hand to build and maintain social networks. I can remember as a teenager spending hours and hours on the phone with my friends, much to my parents’ chagrin. Today’s youth may be doing things differently from their elders, but they’re doing just fine.

References

Spradlin, A., Cuttler, C., Bunce, J. P., & Carrier, L. M. (2019). #Connected: Facebook may facilitate face-to-face relationships for introverts. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8, 34-40.