Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Facebook Revisited: Does the Platform Help or Hurt Users (or Both)?

The benefits and challenges of social media for public health are a frequent topic on Pop Health.  For example, I've explored the influence of these platforms on emergency response, increasing the number of organ donors, and health activism.  However, one of the debates that I hear the most among public health colleagues relates to Facebook.

Does it isolate users?  Does it connect users?  Does it do both?

Earlier this year, my colleague Elana Premack Sandler explored this debate as it relates to loneliness.  Inspired by a feature in the Atlantic Magazine, Elana asks key questions like, "Is Facebook part of the separating or part of the congregating?"  She also mentions concerns about how Facebook (and other social media platforms) affect our social skills and therefore our friendships.

I thought of Elana's writing as I read a new post on the Atlantic website today, "Are Your Facebook Friends Stressing You Out?  (Yes.)".  This post highlights a new report out from the University of Edinburgh Business School.  The report caught my eye because it identified a very specific cause of stress for Facebook users.  The more groups of "friends" a user had (e.g., family, real life friends, co-workers, etc), the more anxiety they had because there was a greater chance of offending someone with their posts.  The report stated that the greatest anxiety came from adding parents or employers as Facebook "friends".  As Megan Garber writes so eloquently in her Atlantic post, the stress comes from Facebook forcing users to "conduct our digital lives with singular identities".  The way we speak or act around family or friends or co-workers must jive on Facebook, or we run the risk of offending someone.  I'm sure many of us saw this conflict a few weeks ago when political and election posts ran rampant on Facebook!

The anxiety described above is interesting, because ideally what we would hope is that Facebook provides a source of social support to users.  Social support occurs when one is cared for by others (via emotional, tangible, or informational support).  The presence or absence of social support is a factor related to public health issues, such as suicide.    

So after reading through the various posts/articles, what do I think about my opening questions about Facebook?

Does it isolate users?  Does it connect users?  Does it do both?

I think it does both.  I have seen it do both.  For example:

Isolation:  I have spoken to friends and colleagues who feel terrible about themselves or their lives after scrolling through their Facebook news feed.  A friend with chronic illness feels isolated hearing about the latest vacation or new job taken by her "friends".  A friend suffering from infertility can't bear one more picture of a "friend" and their newborn.  I think much of this results from the "whitewash" that many of us put on Facebook.  We often paint a picture for our Facebook friends, full of engagements and babies and fun events.  

Connection:  Earlier this year I watched a suicide intervention unfold on Facebook via the comment section under a post.  A friend of a friend posted a suicidal message on their Facebook wall.  Within minutes, "friends" reached out in the comments.  However, not only did they "speak" to the person, but they interacted with each other and followed up in real life.  One comment read, "Did someone go to his house?"  The next comment read, "I went to his house and I called his parents".  After he was taken to the hospital, a comment was posted to inform all the friends that he was safe.  As a public health practitioner that worked in suicide prevention for years, I was amazed with what I saw. 

So what can we do to reduce the isolation/anxiety and increase the connection?  You can certainly start by exerting your control over your Facebook account.  For example:

  • Create a policy about "groups of friends" that you accept into your circle.  I know lots of people that do not accept requests from co-workers or parents.  They make it clear to the individual that it is nothing personal, they just have minimal friends with which they share intimate information.
  • Use the privacy settings!  You can control who can see your posts.
  • Find and use the unfriend button!  I have done this frequently.  If someone posts messages that are offensive or disrespectful regarding something that I've posted- I get rid of them quickly.
  • Take a break from Facebook.  If you realize that Facebook is making you feel bad about yourself, take a break or disable your account.  Use that time to connect with your in real life (IRL) friends or family.
Tell me what you think!  
  • Does Facebook isolate and stress us?  
  • Does Facebook connect us?
  • What other strategies can help to reduce the isolation and increase the connection on Facebook or other social media platforms?


  1. We wanted to let you know that Pop Health has been selected for inclusion in MPHOnline's list of the Top 25 Public Health Blogs of 2012. In compiling our list we looked for blogs regularly updated in 2012 with knowledgeable, interesting, and engaging content covering global health policy, epidemiology, behavioral science, health communication, environmental health, infectious diseases and other public health topics. Congratulations!

    You can view the full list of blogs at http://www.mphonline.org/top-public-health-blogs/

    1. Thanks MPHOnline!! I appreciate the acknowledgement!