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How meeting on Facebook affects meeting in person

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Anxious types who use Facebook to meet others are even more anxious when meeting face-to-face.

If you’re shy or otherwise anxious when communicating with others, you probably prefer interacting online via social networks like Facebook. But how does that affect face-to-face communication with others later on?

Researchers from Benedictine University at Mesa, AZ, and the Providence College in Rhode Island set out to investigate just that by using the Interaction Anxiousness Scale (IAS) to test the anxiety levels of 26 female students between the ages of 18 and 20 years.

Next, the researchers placed electrodes on the ring and index finger of each female student’s left hand to measure skin response, telling the students that they would be memorizing the face of a fellow student to prepare for a facial recognition test.

The women were then randomly assigned to one of four conditions:

1) Facebook only, which required participants to memorize a fellow student’s face from a photo on their Facebook profile page;

2) Face-to-face only, which required participants to study the fellow student's face while in the same room;

3) Face-to-face and Facebook, which required participants to study Facebook photos and then study their face in person; and:

4) Facebook and Face-to-face, which allowed participants to first study their fellow student’s face in person, followed by studying their profile photos on Facebook.

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After being assigned to one of the above four conditions, each female student participating in the study was then asked to identify and circle their fellow student in four different group pictures.

As a result, the researchers found that following Facebook exposure to the fellow student, and then allowing the participant to meet their fellow student “face-to-face”, resulted in increased psychological arousal.

In other words, for those female students with high levels of social anxiety, meeting a fellow student first on Facebook did not make the “face-to-face” meeting that followed any less anxious; rather, it made them even more anxious as evidenced by their increased psychological arousal.

The researchers involved with the study have a theory to explain why this occurs. They believe that when participants looked at photos of their fellow students on Facebook, it may have prompted them to identify with the person in the photo is such a way that it caused those with social anxiety to compare themselves with that fellow student.

In addition, the research team pointed out that socially anxious participants may have experienced a sense of safety while looking at photos of fellow students on Facebook, only for them to then switch to a more anxious state when meeting them in person.

According to the researchers, this may be due to a “priming effect” or an "unwelcome stimulus change” that, for socially agitated or anxious Facebook users, implies the same thing: namely that meeting people first on Facebook may not make meeting them in person later any easier. Indeed, it may actually increase their state of social anxiety in negative ways.

The researchers admit that further studies are needed, especially with the burgeoning growth of social networking sites, where an increasing number of people are often meeting others for the first time via such sites, including Facebook.

The researchers also concluded that the influence this has on people who struggle with social anxiety is especially critical. The results of their study are published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

SOURCE: Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Face to Face Versus Facebook: Does Exposure to Social Networking Web Sites Augment or Attenuate Physiological Arousal Among the Socially Anxious?, Shannon M. Rauch et al., published March 4, 2014 (doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0498).