Your Facebook friends may be harming you without intending to, say scientists who found that social media sites often make users feel left out and more vulnerable to advertising messages. The study, published in the journal Social Science Computer Review, took a critical look at Facebook and the peculiarities of the systems on which similar sites operate. At a glance, the posts at the centre of the study seem harmless. Users open Facebook to sees exchanges among friends which unintentionally excluded them.
The messages can be interpreted in a way that people feel left out. That feeling, as innocuous as it might seem, is not easily dismissed, said Michael Stefanone, an associate professor at University at Buffalo in the US. The social exclusion present in these posts is not intentional, researchers said. Users are not callously sharing exclusion information with their friends.
Social media sites, nevertheless, by design make most information available from one friend to another and the consequences resulting from the interpretation of these messages are significant. “Offline research suggests that social exclusion evokes various physical and psychological consequences such as reduced complex cognitive thought,” said Jessica Covert, a graduate student at University at Buffalo.
“Considering the amount of time individuals spend online, it is important to investigate the effects of online social exclusion,” Covert said. The researchers presented one group with a scenario involving two good friends, where one of those friends had shared information that excluded the participant. The other group saw a feed that presented no social exclusion information. Results indicated that individuals exposed to social exclusion information involving their close friends experienced greater negative emotions than the control group.
They also had a tendency to devote more mental resources toward understanding their social networks, making them particularly sensitive to stimuli such as advertising. “Social exclusion, even something that might seem trivial, is one of the most powerful sanctions people can use on others and it can have damaging psychological effects,” said Stefanone. “When users see these exclusion signals from friends — who haven’t really excluded them, but interpret it that way — they start to feel badly,” he said.
At this point that the brain’s self-regulating function should take over, according to Stefanone. However, self-regulation consumes mental resources that inhibit intelligent thought. “If users are busy self-regulating because of what they read on Facebook there’s evidence that doing so reduces a level of intelligent thought, which can make them more open to persuasive messaging,” he said. For the study, researchers created scenarios designed to mirror typical interactions on Facebook, and 194 individuals participated in an experiment ensuring exposure to social exclusion.