Social Networking and Generosity of Spirit

October 17th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Is Facebook turning us into cyber bullies, generous friends – or both?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I’ve enjoyed a couple of years of support from friends, family and even people I didn’t know so well via the various social networking sites to which I belong. As I mentioned in a post from last year, the daily encouragement from a Facebook friend prompted me to start a personal “thank you campaign.” It may not have turned into a national movement, but that’s not what I expected. I know that I’ve become a nicer person, and that’s all been facilitated by the ease and immediacy of sites like Facebook.

But a recent Wall Street Journal article questioning why people are “so nasty to each other online” got me thinking that the immediacy of such sites can cut both ways. WSJ columnist Elizabeth Bernstein asserts, “Whether on Facebook, Twitter, message boards or websites, we say things to each other that we would never say face to face.” Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle supports this idea, saying that we’re less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing.

In addition to this, Bernstein cites soon-to-be published research from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh that indicates how browsing Facebook may even lower our self-control. Most of us present an enhanced image of ourselves on these sites, she suggests, and this positive image and the encouragement we get in the form of “likes” boosts our self-esteem. “And when we have an inflated sense of self, we tend to exhibit poor self-control,” evident in people being likelier to lash out at others who don’t share their opinions.

Still, there’s at least some evidence to support the idea that Facebooking makes people more empathetic – not meaner. California State University psychology professor Larry Rosen reported last year that the more time college students spent on the Internet, the more empathetic they were online and offline. And in another WSJ article from last year, communication studies professor Nancy Baym reported that Facebook appears to enhance real-world relationships. “One reason: People use digital communication primarily to interact with people they are closest to offline, not with strangers.”

Aside from some particularly brutal conversations about politics I’ve seen on Facebook lately, at least my own recent experience reflects a “nicer” trend. How about yours?