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Heavy Facebook users make bad choices – study

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A recent study from Michigan State University suggests Facebook might be having more of an impact on our lives than simply making us less socially capable.

With several departments contributing to the research, the results suggest some slightly worrying trends. As with everything to do with academia and theoretical pursuits, claims have to be taken with a pinch of salt, though it will hardly come as a surprise that our obsession with the virtual world is having a negative effect in our physical one. In this case, the academics suggest our ability to make sensible and logical decisions is being impaired.

Entitled ‘Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task’, the paper measured how reliant on social media users are, then asked the same users to take the ‘Iowa Gambling Task’, which is thought to simulate real-life decision making. The results suggest the more reliant individuals are on social media networks, the higher the likelihood these individuals would make riskier decisions.

71 Facebook users were asked to rank their own social media habits with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, before taking the Iowa Gambling Task. The Iowa Gambling Task presents four virtual decks of cards, with the user told each deck holds cards that will either reward or penalize them, with each deck being weighted differently. Two of the decks offer larger rewards, though the losses outweigh the gains, while the other two have smaller rewards and lesser punishments, allowing for a net gain.

Most healthy participants sample cards from each deck, and after about 40 or 50 selections are fairly good at sticking to the good decks, whereas some with various mental conditions to persevere with bad decks, sometimes even with the knowledge they are losing money. The concept of ‘chasing the loss’ seems to be quite apparent here.

In a world where social media networks are potentially creating echo chambers for more extreme opinion, the combination with less considered decision-making leads to a worrying outcome. Perhaps this might be one explanation why some recent decisions in elections and referendums are removed from what would be considered the status quo and would appear to be more ‘confrontational’ than behaviour see during yesteryear.

“We observed that more severe, excessive SNS (social networking sites) use is associated with worse performance in the last 20 trials of the IGT (Iowa Gaming Test),” the paper states.

“Our results have important societal implications. SNS use is ubiquitous and continues to grow, likely resulting in more individuals displaying excessive, problematic SNS use. Meanwhile, companies continue to develop features on SNS platforms to make them even more compelling.”

Those who self-identified as excessive Facebook users performed notably poorer in the tests than those who believed themselves to have a more moderate approach to social media. The behaviour was perhaps most worrying in the final stages of the test, as while the excessive users had the same amount of time to realise which decks were ‘bad’ and which were ‘good’, the riskier choices were still made.

What is worth noting is the limitations of the research. Firstly, the work has been conducted in a controlled, theoretical environment, not the real-world. Secondly, only the impact of Facebook users were measured, not all social media sites. Thirdly, the Iowa Gaming Test is not without its critics. Finally, this test was conducted in a mathematical fashion not clinical, which is an important differentiation to make when claiming conclusions which are linked to psychological behaviour.

That said, the tests should encourage more investigation. Today’s world is being increasingly influenced by the footprint and power of social media, though little work has been done to understand the long-term impacts or even tightly regulate the space. This might be down to the age of this segment, in comparison to traditional industries the internet is still a baby, or due to the fact few outside Silicon Valley understand how Silicon Valley actually works. Whatever the reason, the internet players have been granted a relatively light-touch regulatory landscape.

As the days roll into years, we will discover more of the positive and negative impacts of social media on our lives, though considering the rate of expansion, this education process might be taking too long. Social media sites are rapidly developing in every aspect of our physical and virtual lives, while simultaneously collecting the profits to fuel more aggressive growth in the years to come. The more we find out about platforms like Facebook and the potential impact on our lives, the less we like, though this has done little to slow the gathering momentum behind the segment.

After a year which has seen the rise of extreme political groups utilising the power of social media, Facebook curating the biggest data privacy scandal to date, Google misleading the user over location tracking policies, as well as numerous other nefarious activities, perhaps this paper is further evidence governments need a tighter handle on the internet. Few would complain over greater regulatory scrutiny in this sector, though whether governments have the know-how and resource to actually do it is another matter.

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