Is Facebook making you fat?

Is Facebook making you fat?


A report in The Age newspaper last year suggested that Australians are becoming more sceptical of the benefits of Facebook and dislike the “narcissistic” culture it can promote. But if you needed another reason to curb your time on the social network, here’s a cracker: it might be bad for your self control, promoting weight gain and unnecessary spending. And it’s your close friends who are enabling you.

In a paper titled ‘Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control‘ published late last year, assistant professors’ Keith Wilcox (Columbia Business School) and Andrew T. Stephen (University of Pittsburgh) detail five studies they performed to test the hypothesis that Facebook use can reduce self control and lead to impulsive decision making. One study involved participants being asked to browse either Facebook or CNN for five minutes and then choosing between a healthy snack (a granola bar) or an unhealthy one (a cookie).

The results seem to indicate that Facebook users who frequently interact with close friends and family (what the researchers call “strong ties”) are significantly more at risk of making impulsive choices.

While Wilcox and Stephen point out that Facebook can have positive effects (such as a boost in self esteem) they suggest that favourable social feedback from strong ties may also create a temporary sense of entitlement, meaning users were less likely to exercise self-restraint when presented with temptations.

“Even a small five-minute ‘dose’ of social network use in our studies was enough to significantly lower self-control in subsequent choices and tasks. Heavy users likely expose themselves to multiple doses of this effect a day,” they said.

The researchers also asked participants about the amount of time they spend using Facebook, as well as their height, weight and credit card debt.

“The results suggest that greater social network use is associated with a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score and higher levels of credit card debt for individuals with strong ties to their social network,” they said.

The paper does leave some questions and areas for further study. There is potentially a “chicken and egg” situation here; it’s possible that heavier Facebook use may be an outlet for individuals with the above problems.

There is some good news to come out of the study, however: If you’re only a casual Facebook user, you probably won’t be effected – all the studies indicated that the loss of self control only applied to users with strong ties on the network.

Wilcox and Stephen also suggest that the results may help shape public health policy. In Australia, we’ve already had “Slip-Slop-Slap” and “Don’t Drink and Drive”; is it time for a “Don’t Stuff Your Face on Facebook” campaign?

In the meantime, it might be best to keep the junk food locked up tight while you’re on the social network.

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