Researcher Kelsey Park ’14, left, confers with Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets. Sheets and her Colby team have been studying how Facebook interactions affect users’ emotional health.
Researcher Kelsey Park ’14, left, confers with Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets. Sheets and her Colby team have been studying how Facebook interactions affect users’ emotional health.

When people log into Facebook, ready to share a photo or check in with their Facebook friends, what do they feel? Anxiety? Confidence? Euphoria?

While most Facebookers may not think much about what they feel emotionally when they use social media, Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets does. She studies relationships between young people’s Facebook use and their emotional well-being.

It turns out Facebook may have real effects on mental health.

Working with several student researchers, Sheets is examining how Facebook may affect young adults’ emotional awareness and ability to regulate their own emotions. The idea is that young people who use Facebook more frequently may not be as aware of their own emotions, or as able to regulate them, as peers who use Facebook less.

“I’m interested in increasing our knowledge about how technology is affecting our emotions,” said Sheets. “If we all have a finite amount of time and we’re doing more communication through technology rather than face to face, what effect is that having on young adults who are still gaining skills and [on] how they deal with emotion?”

Sheets is especially interested in dysphoria, a level of sadness less severe than full-blown depression. Her scientific inquiry isn’t so much about whether social media makes people sad, she says, but rather it’s about the ways use of social media might increase dysphoria. She’d like to see her research encourage young people to be mindful about their social media use and to be aware of potential consequences when they log in. “I hope that they’ll ask themselves, ‘If I’m feeling down, do I want to post that on Facebook or do I want to talk to a friend? Which is going to help me in a more positive, adaptive way?’”

Sheets and her student researchers used two different approaches to examine how Facebook affects emotional awareness. First, they developed an online questionnaire focusing on how emotionally connected people are to Facebook. With choices like “I often feel embarrassed when looking back at photos I posted,” and “When I get a notification on Facebook, I feel happy,” the questionnaire assessed how strongly people react to what happens on Facebook. In the study’s second component, the researchers assessed participants’ general emotional awareness by asking them to imagine their responses to emotionally charged scenarios or by measuring their reactions to unsettling film clips.

Student researchers Rhiannon Archer ’14 and Kelsey Park ’14 presented preliminary findings last summer at the Colby Undergraduate Summer Research Retreat. At that point, the data were already yielding some conclusions about the connections between Facebook, dysphoria, and the common habit of “co-ruminating”—when two or more people discuss a problem at length without actually tackling solutions.

“We found that people who use Facebook a lot and co-ruminate a lot show more dysphoric symptoms than people who use Facebook some but still co-ruminated a lot,” said Park, whose summer research appointment was supported by the Colby Fund.

Social Media

Following another academic year of research, Park presented her research at the keynote poster session of the Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium this spring. After expanding the participant pool to 160 students and carefully analyzing the results of the emotional awareness tests, Sheets and Park had found that the measures they developed for assessing Facebook use and dysphoria revealed connections that previous studies had missed. In particular they found that people who are more reactive to Facebook may be more likely to have high rates of depression. In October Archer and Park will travel with Sheets to present those findings at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood in Chicago, Ill.

Sheets has had nine student researchers working on the study over its life. They administered questionnaires, read consent agreements, and coded data. Sheets says she has seen students respond positively to the study, both as participants and researchers. The study has demonstrated to many students the applicability of psychology to current cultural questions. “The students are excited to see that they can study something modern and current instead of an old paradigm,” she said.

For Park, a double major in psychology and philosophy who intends to further explore issues surrounding emotion and identity in graduate school, the subject matter is more than just hip. It’s a critical component of predicting how we deal with technology in the future.

“It’s been really interesting to look at the data and determine what are the possible future implications of increasing technology and increasing use of technology in order to have social interactions and social communications,” she said.

“People love Facebook, but what does that actually mean?”