Social networking sites are a part of rapidly emerging virtual space whose effects we haven’t even begun to grasp. For one thing, they have become extremely efficient in utilizing our innate tendency for making social comparisons (Festinger, 1954) and gaining prominence online by bringing people with similar interests together. We have come so far that a remark like “I like my online friends more than my offline ones” would not at all be considered facetious by anyone these days.
Social relationships matter, but how much of an impact do/can they have when they exist in virtual reality? This was the broad research question that Valkenburg, Peter, and Schouten (2006), researchers at University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, strived to address by conducting an online survey with 881 Dutch adolescent participants who had created a profile at the Dutch social networking site “CU2”. The participants were asked about the frequency, rate, and intensity of CU2 website use and were questioned about frequency and tone of reaction by others to their profiles. The participants were also asked about relationships formed through the use of website and were given questionnaires measuring their self esteem and well-being. It was hypothesized that the kind of feedback left on the profile of participants would have an influence over their self esteem and well-being as measured by psychological questionnaires.
The results of the study confirmed the hypothesis as self esteem and well-being of adolescents was demonstrated to be affected just by tone of the feedback left on their social networking website profiles. Positive feedback on the profile of participants in the study correlated with increased self esteem while negative feedback correlated with lower scores on measures of self esteem.
About 35% of the participants reported having formed at least one friendship through the use of social networking site, and 8% declared development of romantic relationships through website use. The study interestingly also revealed that the number of friendships and romantic relationships through website did not impact their self esteem. In other words, quality of relationships mattered more than sheer quantity.
Although limited by type and number of participants, the study by Valkenberg, Peter, and Schouten (2006) clearly shows that the virtual nature of virtual reality does not hinder it from having an impact on our psyche. We are all surrounded by internet memes like this, this, this, and this that try to reinforce the notion that virtual reality is just that, virtual, and people who interface virtual reality with any degree of seriousness are being ridiculous. But the fact of the matter is that there is very little difference between perception and high level cognition (Hofstadter & FARG, 1995) and as demonstrated by Valekenberg, Peter and Shouten’s (2006) study, how people interact with each other online does make a difference in their perception of themselves.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.
Hofstadter, D., & Fluid Analogies Research Group (1995). Fluid concepts & creative analogies: Computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought. New York: BasicBooks.
Valkenburg, P.M., Peter, J., & Schouten, A.P. (2006). Friend networking sites and their relationship to adolescents’ well-being and social self-esteem. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 9, 584-590.