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Facebook Study: Social Network May Boost Self-Esteem, Shrink Self-Control

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Social commentators have issued warning after warning that social media use can be detrimental to self-esteem. A recent paper out of the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia Business School and published in the Journal of Consumer Research (online in November 2012 and in print June 2013), however, claims to undermine the conventional wisdom, finding that Facebook can actually inflate users' sense of their own worth.

Finally some good news, right?

Not so fast.

The researchers found that the boost in self-esteem that Facebook users felt after browsing the site can lead to a substantial decrease in self-control -- both on the Internet and off. According to the paper, which consists of five separate studies conducted offline and includes a total of 1,000 Facebook users, the drop in self-control demonstrated things like higher body-mass indexes and higher levels of credit-card debt.

The first and second of the five studies found that the increase in self-esteem -- measured through a self-esteem survey -- occurred only in those with strong ties to their social network of friends and only when users were sharing information as opposed to responding to information shared with them. In other words, those talking to themselves about people they're close to felt pretty excellent about themselves.

The third and fourth studies established the link between an increase in self-esteem and a decrease in self-control. In the third study, participants were told to either read articles on or to check Facebook and then choose between a chocolate chip cookie and a granola bar. Those who had checked Facebook were more likely to choose the cookie, behavior researchers interpreted as corresponding to "lower self-control."In the fourth study, participants were told to look at either or Facebook and then given an anagram word puzzle. Those who browsed Facebook were quicker to give up on the puzzle.

The fifth study sought to establish a connection between social network use online and self-control offline. Researchers asked participants to provide information including their height and weight and level of credit card debt. "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," the researchers wrote.

While the researchers emphasized that a 2011 Cornell study determined that social media use can increase self-esteem, they concluded, "Our findings show that this effect primarily emerges when people are focused on strong ties while browsing their social network." They also say the study is the first to "demonstrate that using online social networks can influence self-control."

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