Heavy Facebook use, higher credit card debt go together
Study finds correspondence between social network and worse credit
Does using Facebook cause you to spend money you don't have
and to pig out on junk food?
As far-fetched as that might sound, a pair of U.S. marketing
professors say they have found a relationship between time spent on Facebook
and lower credit scores, higher credit card debt and bigger waistlines. The
authors say their work is the first study of
its kind to link Facebook to personal financial habits.
The research is among a growing number of studies that are
seeking to explain how the use of Facebook and other new technologies is
shaping our lives, for better and worse, in areas as diverse as social and
civic interactions, commerce and psychological well-being. This month, Facebook
said it surpassed 1 billion active users worldwide. About half of U.S. adults
say they use at least one social networking site -- twice that of just four
The researchers, Keith Wilcox of Columbia Business School
and Andrew Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh's business school, are not
suggesting that people log onto Facebook and then, zombie-like, gorge
themselves on debt and Twinkies. Instead, they say, the effects are subtle and
The effects are most pronounced, they say, on Facebook users
who have strong ties to their online friends. They say the process works like
this: People browse through their social network of close friends. Participating
in that supportive online community boosts their self-esteem. That brief
increase in self-esteem reduces self-control.
People with strong social ties to their online networks and
who spent more time on Facebook had, on average, higher credit card debt, lower
credit scores and a higher body-mass index (BMI)
than those Facebook users with weak social ties and less time on the social
"You're feeling better about yourself, you're feeling good
and you're more likely to exhibit behaviors that are consistent with lower
self-control," Stephen says. "I don't think it's putting you in situations you
wouldn't otherwise be in, but on a daily basis, we are making these decisions
all the time, and we are being exposed to Facebook all the time."
'Be aware of it'
The findings are based on a series of five surveys and
experiments involving hundreds of participants. The researchers' analysis
worked to exclude the effect of the sample's age, gender and other demographic
information on the results.
Stephen acknowledges that the study does not prove that
Facebook use leads to higher debt, lower credit scores and bigger bellies. It could
be the other way around: That for some reason, people with those attributes
just happen to use Facebook more. But he says the research is still valuable
because it helps people understand potential negative consequences to using the
world's most popular website.
"It draws attention to the fact that at a broader level,
there are potential negative consequences of using social media that people
need to be careful about," he says. "It doesn't mean you have to use Facebook
less. You just have to be aware of it. ... For someone who has a fair amount of
debt or doesn't have a great credit score or credit history and knows they don't
exhibit self-control, drawing awareness to this and making it more salient is a
Wilcox and Stephen's study -- submitted to the Journal of
Consumer Research and published online last month -- builds on previous work that
has shown that participating in social networks makes people feel better about
themselves. Researchers say that's because people receive affirmation and
support from their friends, and they share information about themselves that
others find witty or entertaining -- while generally filtering out and setting
aside negative feelings.
2012 survey found that 85 percent of U.S. adults who use social networks
say people are mostly kind on those sites, and two out of three say they have
had an experience online that made them feel good about themselves.
In a 2011
study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, researchers found
that Facebook users receive more social support from their networks than
non-users. Facebook users also tended to be more trusting, more politically
engaged and have more close relationships.
But not everyone is buying the argument that more support
and better self-perception lead to overspending and overeating. Deb Aikat, a
professor who studies technology issues at the University of North Carolina,
says there are too many other factors involved to draw a correlation between
Facebook use and debt.
"I do not find a lot of logical links between a Facebook
user who has strong ties to their network and having higher credit card debt
and lower credit scores," Aikat says. "It's like saying somebody who visits a
bar and has good social connections would have higher debt and a lower credit
score. There is no causality to it. One doesn't lead to the other."
When new technologies emerge, Aikat says, their effects are
often misunderstood -- and overblown. For instance, in the late 1990s, as the
Internet was becoming widespread, there was plenty of hand-wringing about how
it contributed to a perceived decline in civic participation, as captured in
the 2000 book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community."
Today, though, it is widely understood that the Internet
has enhanced civic participation, Aikat says.
study points to several areas for future research. Wilcox and Stephen say, for
instance, that future studies might consider the effect of Facebook on people's
perception of different brand names. And they say it might be helpful to know
what specific behaviors -- such as posting status updates about your dog versus
merely reading your friends' witty musings -- lead to heightened feelings of
self-esteem and reduced self-control.
Aikat agrees with that point: "This needs further investigation."
Published: October 24, 2012