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Can your digital life corrupt your physical health and livelihood?

The Facebook logo is reflected in the eye of a girl surfing the internet.
The Facebook logo is reflected in the eye of a girl surfing the internet.
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As social media sites like Facebook become increasingly popular, our social lives are becoming increasingly digital. For some, virtually all of their social interaction revolves around using social media through the Internet. Such prolonged digital socializing is possibly affecting our lives in ways we don’t even realize.

A series of new research studies from professors at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh suggest that prolonged use of social media can have adverse effects on our behavior and our health. Specifically, the studies indicate that people who spend more time on Facebook are more likely to have lower self-control, leading to meanness, more credit-card debt, unhealthy diets and less motivation to complete difficult tasks.

"If you spend some time on Facebook, seeing what your friends are up to and staying connected, that's great because actually it has a nice, positive impact on how you feel about yourself," study co-author Andrew Stephen said. "On the other hand, there's a negative consequence of that which could
relate to lower self-control."

Researchers found an association with Facebook usage and peoples' credit scores. The more frequent users tended to have lower credit scores and higher credit card debt.

Stephen said that these correlations were found after people used Facebook for a mere five minutes. "Overtime, all these little doses can add up and result in a meaningful difference," he continued.

Karen North of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism said social media may influence livelihoods, but some people might be more susceptible to these characteristics.

"You also have to wonder about what kinds of people are more drawn to spending more of their
time online, posting online, and staying with the people they know online," she said.

According to Stephen, those with a closer replication of their meaningful, offline friendships on social media are more prone.

But why does social media have the propensity to make us meaner? North said social media seeks entertaining content.

"We seem to be raising a generation of people who want to be entertaining. Sometimes that means being funny, and sometimes that means being mean, because it's sort of shocking and entertaining in that way," she explained. "People forget sometimes that they're interacting with people on the other end."

North added that the digital realm allows people to project an ideal self, even if that doesn't match with who they really are.

"When your'e posting info online, there's nobody there to call your bluff. You can start creating a persona for yourself. In someways, that's a healthy thing to do, but the problem comes up when people start acting in a way to get attention."

Weigh In:

How healthy is it to let our social lives be dominated by social media? Is the widespread use of social media the first step on a path toward living exclusively digital lives with little or no real human interaction?


Andrew Stephen, professor of marketing at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Co-author of the paper that will be coming out in the Journal of Consumer Research early next year.

Karen North, Director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism