Feeling down in the dumps and want to feel better? Log into Facebook and view your profile. Want to feel even better? Try editing your profile. A new study published in the February issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that viewing and editing your Facebook profile could boost your self-esteem.
Remember the skit "Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley" on "Saturday Night Live"? Smalley -- with his well-coiffed blond hair and smart, pastel cardigan -- would begin his televised self-help show by gazing into the mirror and reciting, "I'm good enough I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!"
Oh, poor Stuart. If he only had a Facebook profile back then -- it would have been so much easier to boost his self-esteem. And if he were aware of the latest research on self-perception he would have realized that because of Objective Self-Awareness theory, looking in the mirror can actually decrease self-esteem instead of enhancing it.
Objective Self-Awareness theory suggests that humans view the self as both a subject and an object. When we view ourselves as the subject, we are actively experiencing events: walking to the store, eating a sandwich or taking a shower. However, when we reflect on our own consciousness, we become the object of the experience by focusing on the self. As soon as we start thinking about the self, we become the object of our thoughts. When we do this, we can think of the self positively or negatively.
Research suggests that when we are in this state of "objective self-awareness," we have a tendency to have a downgraded rating of the self. The reason for the drop is that when we are self-aware, we tend to make comparisons to social standards and often can feel we fall short of these standards.
There are many tools that we can use to prompt objective self-awareness. It could be a photo of ourselves, a video camera pointing to us, or a mirror. These objects cause us to view ourselves as we think others are viewing us. Even if no one is viewing us at that moment, we still feel as if under observation. Studies have shown that this results in a drop in self-esteem because we become more sensitive to the fact that others could be viewing us in a negative light.
So if photos, video cameras, and mirrors create objective self-awareness, what effect would one's Facebook profile have? This is what the researchers at Cornell University wondered. One theory is that exposure to one's Facebook profile leads to decreased self-esteem because it prompts objective self-awareness, just like looking into a mirror. That makes perfect sense, but there is an alternative theory that suggests the reverse effect.
According to the Hyperpersonal Model, the internet allows users to selectively self-present themselves. While editing our Facebook profile, we take care to select what comments and images make our wall, and what items should be deleted or untagged. Over time we can incorporate this online positive image of our selves into our self-conceptions.
So if a mirror shows us our selves in reality, but our Facebook profile shows our selves in a positive light, the Hyperpersonal Model would suggest that viewing your Facebook profile would enhance self-esteem instead of decreasing it.
To test these two theories, the researchers took 63 participants and sat them beside a computer. The computers were either turned off or featured the student's Facebook profile. Some of the computers that were off had a mirror beside them while the others had no mirror (the control group). The participants on Facebook were informed that they had three minutes to look through any of the tabs on their profile page. After the three minutes, every participant was given a questionnaire to measure self-esteem.
The findings indicated that the participants who were looking at the mirror showed no elevations in self-esteem (the same result as the control group). However, the participants who used Facebook showed higher ratings of self-esteem. Why is this so? Is it because of the role of socialization in supporting self-esteem?
Previous research has shown that socializing online promotes self-esteem. While the present study did not account for the effect of the number of Facebook friends on self-esteem ratings, the study did reveal that while being on Facebook boosted self-esteem, participants who only viewed their profile for the entire three minutes reported higher self-esteem than participants who also viewed the profile of others. (This is in keeping with another recent study, which found that other people's happy status updates can make you feel sad.)
The highest reports of self-esteem came from participants who also edited their Facebook profile during that time. These results indicate that specifically our ability to select how we present our selves to others is very important to self-esteem. When users edit their profile on Facebook, they can select exactly what information they want to reveal and remove any information that would reflect negatively. "Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does not match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves," explains Jeffery Hancock, co-author of the study. "We're not saying that it's a deceptive version of self, but it's a positive one."
The study suggests that the ability to constantly edit information about the self towards one's notion of our ideal self explains why participants who edited their profile during the experiment reported the highest levels of self-esteem. While this study only shows the effects of temporary shifts in self-esteem, only further research can indicate the long-term effects.
To summarize, for the benefit of Stuart Smalley, an unedited version of the self -- such as a mirror -- can actually decrease self-esteem through heightened awareness of our actual self. Yet, our handcrafted Facebook profiles represent our selves in a positive light, thus boosting our self-esteem every time we look at it.
So, if you decide to share this link on Facebook, don't feel bad when you linger a bit longer on your page, updating your status and editing your profile. While staring into that shiny digital mirror reflecting your optimal self, you might think, "Yup. I'm good enough. Smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!"
Adoree Durayappah, M.A.P.P., M.B.A., is a writer and psychologist with an addiction to academia. Learn more at AdoreeDurayappah.com.