Is Facebook Making You Poor and Fat?

Dec 3, 2012 by

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Clicking here may cause the munchies.

An academic paper published online in September made this conclusion:

“…greater social network use is associated with a higher body-mass index and higher levels of credit card debt for individuals with strong ties to their social network.”

Wow. Could it be that the more time you spend on Facebook the more likely you’ll be overweight and caught in the high-interest debt trap?

Overview of the Facebook Paper

Published online in the Journal of Consumer Research, the paper’s complete title is “Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control.” Its authors are Keith Wilcox, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Columbia School of Business, and Andrew T. Stephen, Associate Dean of Research & L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at the University of Oxford – Saïd Business School.

Professors Wilcox’s and Stephen’s conclusions are two-fold:

  1. Social network use enhances self-esteem in users who are focused on close friends (i.e., strong ties) while browsing their social network. (That sounds good, but…)
  2. This momentary increase in self-esteem reduces self-control, leading those focused on strong ties to display less self-control after browsing a social network.

Apparently it’s that loss of self-control after engaging one’s social network that can open the door to over indulgence—in the consumption of both calories and consumer goods—leading to an association between social network engagement, higher body-mass index (BMI), and credit card debt levels.

Some Facebook Paper Details

You can click on the paper’s link above to learn more, but the Professors conducted five studies to underpin their conclusions:

In study 1, we show that simply browsing a social network enhances self-esteem for individuals focused on strong ties while browsing their social network. Study 2 replicates this finding, but shows the effect only emerges when individuals are focused on the information they are sharing with their network (i.e., self-presentation). Studies 3 and 4 show that social network use lowers self-control for individuals focused on strong ties while browsing their social network and that the effect of social network use on self-control is mediated by self-esteem. Finally, study 5 reports the results of an online field study examining the relationship between online social network use and offline behaviors associated with poor self-control. The results suggest that greater social network use is associated with a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score and higher levels of credit card debt for individuals with strong ties to their social network.

I found Study 3 particularly interesting. Eight-four Facebook users were divided equally into two groups. One group logged into their Facebook accounts and browsed for five minutes. The other group browsed CNN.com for five minutes. Then all the participants were offered a snack choice: A granola bar or a chocolate chip cookie. As the authors explain, “We recorded preference for the unhealthy cookies as a measure of self-control with greater preference for the cookies corresponding to lower self- control.” (Remember that the next time you’re in the cookie aisle.) For those with strong ties to their social network, Facebook browsing increased the likelihood of making an unhealthy choice (e.g., the maligned chocolate chip cookie) compared to those who browsed CNN.com. To control for the possibility that Facebook users may be smart enough to know that most brand name granola bars are as unhealthy as a chocolate chip cookie—but taste a lot worse—the authors also asked participants to rate the healthfulness of the two snacks. No doubt victimized by modern day brand marketing, participants rated the cookie as less healthy. I wonder what happened to all the leftover granola bars.

Your Observations and Thoughts

Think about your friends’ (and your own) girths, spending discipline, and Facebook habits. Is your experience consistent with this study’s findings? And if there is a relationship between Facebook, BMI, and credit card debt, would you say people “with strong ties to their social network” tend to have higher BMIs and more credit card debt, or is it the other way around: Large, indebted people tend to devote more energy to Facebook, for some reason?

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