Cyberpsychologists Link Number of Facebook Friends to Teen Stress Levels

facebook-like-logo-vectorGiven the growing importance of technology in our world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the cyber- prefix invades another academic discipline. And yet, as I researched this blog post this morning, I was a little startled to realize just how long psychologists have been working the field of cyberpsychology.

For the uninitiated, cyberpsychology is defined as a field of study that “encompasses all psychological phenomena that are associated with or affected by emerging technology.” There are at least two journals devoted to developments in this area (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking and Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace) and a conference (CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy & Social Networking Conference) that remarkably enough celebrated its 20th anniversary this past summer.

My introduction to this field arose in response to reports about a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Montreal and the Institut universitaire de santé mentale de Montréal. The study, which was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology [paywall], was designed to examine the relationship between teen Facebook activity and levels of stress.

To conduct the experiment, the team recruited 88 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17. They quizzed each participant on four aspects of their Facebook use: frequency, number of friends, self-promotional activity, and positive interactions with the Facebook activity of others. They also collected saliva samples three times a day from each person and used them to measure cortisol levels at that moment. (Cortisol is a hormone released by the body in response to stress and low blood sugar.)

In a statement, team leader Dr. Sonia Lupien said the study found a clear connection between teen cortisol levels and the number of Facebook friends each had. “We were able to show,” Lupien said, “that beyond 300 Facebook friends, adolescents showed higher cortisol levels; we can therefore imagine that those who have 1,000 or 2,000 friends on Facebook may be subjected to even greater stress.”

This is significant because other studies have linked high cortisol levels among young teens with an increased risk of developing depression in later adolescence. As Lupien put it:

We did not observe depression in our participants. However, adolescents who present high stress hormone levels do not become depressed immediately; it can occur later on. Some studies have shown that it may take 11 years before the onset of severe depression in children who consistently had high cortisol levels.

The preliminary nature of our findings will require refined measurement of Facebook behaviors in relation to physiological functioning and we will need to undertake future studies to determine whether these effects exist in younger children and adults. Developmental analysis could also reveal whether virtual stress is indeed ‘getting over the screen and under the skin’ to modulate neurobiological processes related to adaptation.

Having watched four teenaged boys navigate through adolescence in the Facebook era, I have experience watching the number of their “friends” shoot up like weather balloons. It’s typical for high school kids to “friend” most if not all of their class and significant chunks of the grades just ahead and just behind them. It will be interesting to see if additional research can pin down the precise connection between the number of a child’s Facebook friends and an increase in cortisol, and whether the link remains linear as the number of friends climbs into the several hundreds or even low thousands. Does the stress stem from the sheer amount of activity? FOMO (the fear of missing out)? A lack of sleep? The mental effort of processing all of the interconnections among “friends”? These are subtle and intangible questions.

In the meantime, this study offers yet another reason for parents to take a good luck at Facebook and the role it is playing in the lives of their children. It’s worth knowing, at the very least, how many “friends” each of your children has on Facebook and then asking how many he or she actually knows. (Good questions along those lines include “Have you ever actually met this person?” and “Could you pick this person out in a police line-up?”) A discussion regarding your child’s friend list could naturally segue to a conversation about our varying definitions of “friendship” these days, and from there to the boundaries of privacy and limits on oversharing. There’s a lot to talk about.

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