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Posting on Facebook is an easy way to connect with people, but it also can be a means to alienate them. That can be particularly troublesome for those with low self-esteem.
People with poor self-image tend to view the glass as half empty. They complain a bit more than everyone else, and they often share their negative views and feelings when face to face with friends and acquaintances.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, wondered whether those behavior patterns would hold true online. They published their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
"People with low self-esteem tend to be very cautious and self-protective," says one of the researchers, psychologist Amanda L. Forest. "It's very important to them to gain others' acceptance and approval. ... So given that, we thought people with low self-esteem might censor what they're saying to present a kind of positive and likable self-image on Facebook."
She and fellow psychologist Joanne V. Wood collected the 10 most recent status updates from 177 undergraduate volunteers who had completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. A team of objective "readers" then rated the updates based on how positive or negative they were.
People with low self-esteem posted far more negative updates than those with high self-esteem. Forest says they described a host of unhappy sentiments, from seemingly minor things like having a terrible day or being frustrated with class schedules to more extreme feelings of rage and sorrow.
On the other hand, those with a healthy dose of self-esteem often wrote about being happy, excited or thankful for something.
When researchers asked people rating the updates if they wanted to get to know those who wrote the negative posts, the answer was a resounding no.
Researchers even looked at actual Facebook friends because, Forest says, "you might think that a real friend would care if you're expressing negativity." It turned out actual friends didn't like the negative posts, either. The posts actually backfired, neither winning the author new friends nor generating good feelings.
Even for people with high self-esteem, aspects of Facebook can be difficult, according to mental health professionals — for example, if other people get lots of "likes" or thumbs-up on their posts and yours don't, or if friends post photos that you're not in.
The bottom line for everyone — no matter how much self-esteem you have — is to be selective about what you put on Facebook, says Dr. Mike Brody, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland and in private practice. Especially since posts live in cyberspace forever.