Too many Facebook friends?

A new study links heavy teen Facebook use to elevated levels of a hormone that signals stress


New research suggests that how tweens and teens use Facebook affects levels of a stress hormone in their bodies.

Jayson Photography / iStockphoto

Facebook lets friends connect. They can give each other updates, share photos and post comments. But that’s not all. Facebook might also stress users out. The evidence: elevated levels of a tell-tale hormone in the saliva of users with lots of friends on the site.

In a new study, researchers asked 12- to 17-year olds to complete questionnaires. The 88 volunteers reported how much time they spent on Facebook. They described how many people they had friended through the site. Each person also answered questions about the types of Facebook posts and comments that they made.

In addition, teens and tweens in the study answered questions about their feelings and state of mind. Some questions sought out signs of stress and depression. (People with depression generally feel sad and may lack energy for day-to-day activities.) Other questions asked for the Facebook user’s feelings of stress and self-esteem. And some questions asked how much support each person felt he or she got from other people.

The volunteers also gave saliva samples. This happened four times a day on two different days. Researchers tested those samples for cortisol. This chemical is a stress hormone. Levels of it vary throughout the day.

Cortisol can be very helpful when a person feels threatened or stressed. It and other hormones trigger the body’s “ fight or flight ” response. That releases the energy to either face a threat or run away. Stress hormones also can help a person ward off a blow or jump back in response to a warning. Or, they can make a student more alert during a test.

But that’s not all. Chronic production of cortisol can affect the brain, notes Sonia Lupien. She’s a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. She worked on the new study.

Over time, a nonstop flood of cortisol can harm parts of the brain that deal with learning and emotions. Anxiety, forgetfulness or moodiness can result. Chemical changes in the brain could contribute to depression or other health problems as well.

Her team’s new data also revealed some good news. “We did not find any association between Facebook use and depression,” says Lupien.

However, research by others has shown that high levels of cortisol in the morning can raise the risk that a teen will develop depression later on. And in this study, people with the most Facebook friends — more than 300 — had somewhat higher cortisol levels. Additionally, the more Facebook friends that users had, the more likely they were to feel anxious.

“Having too many friends can be stressful,” Lupien suggests. “Up to a certain number of friends, you feel good social support. But at some point, it switches.” Perhaps managing huge numbers of Facebook friends just takes too much work. Or, maybe most of them are mere acquaintances instead of close, supportive friends.

On the flip side, youths who gave lots of “likes” and supportive comments on Facebook had lower cortisol levels. “The more you give social support to others, the lower your stress hormone levels,” Lupien reports. Her team’s findings will appear in the January 2016 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

A little help from our friends?

Facebook is an example of social media. These are websites or apps that let people connect and share content. They have become very popular, especially with teens. “This research definitely bridges the social science approach and medical science approach on an important question in our social-media age,” says Wenhong Chen. She is a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s “really refreshing” to see Lupien’s team study cortisol levels along with questionnaire data, Chen says. It makes her wonder whether similar results would show up in other age groups.

One finding in Lupien’s work surprised Chen. Teens and tweens who felt they got a lot of support from other people also had somewhat higher cortisol levels. Usually, she says, those feelings should protect people from stress.

“We were also surprised by this,” Lupien says. The size of one’s Facebook network wasn’t linked to whether someone felt he or she generally got strong support from others. Further studies might show that other factors affect whether people feel they have good support. If so, those factors might explain the higher cortisol levels.

Also, Lupien notes, high cortisol levels are not always bad. They can prove useful. And this study only looked at one point in time. “We don’t know what happens in the long run,” she says.

Chen has done her own studies of Facebook use. In one, her team found that the more college students interacted on the site, the more supportive and helpful they acted towards their Facebook friends. More active users also got more support from their friends on the site. However, students’ perceptions about giving or getting support didn’t match up with actual behavior on Facebook. Chen’s group published its findings in Computers in Human Behavior in October 2015.  

A second study found a link between higher levels of Facebook activity and lower self-esteem among college students. Frequent Facebook users were more likely to feel overwhelmed by too much complex information and communication. Chen and a colleague published that work in late 2013.

“There are many positive impacts of social media use among young people and beyond,” Chen notes. But there also are potential pitfalls. So, she says, enjoy Facebook, but be aware of the risks. Use it in moderation. And don’t let Facebook or other online activities overwhelm you.

Along those lines, Lupien recommends that teen Facebook users share with and support their friends on the site. They shouldn’t just stay silent. “If anyone is more stressed, it’s the watchers, not the sharers,” she says.

Also, Lupien recommends that people who use social media heavily — or just tend to feel stressed — should find time to take brisk walks, to run or to do another activities. Cortisol increases a person’s energy. “The best way to reduce stress hormones,” she says, “is to use the energy.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

adolescence     A transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

anxiety  A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

app   Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

chronic A condition, such as an illness (or its symptoms, including pain), that lasts for a long time.

cortisol   A stress hormone that helps release glucose into the blood in preparation for the fight or flight response.

depression  A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

data  Facts and statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

fight-or-flight response   The body’s response to a threat, either real or imagined. During the fight-or-flight response, digestion shuts down as the body prepares to deal with the threat (fight) or to run away from it (flight).

hormone   (in zoology and medicine)  A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. (in botany) A chemical that serves as a signaling compound that tells cells of a plant when and how to develop, or when to grow old and die.

media   (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media.

neuroscience  Science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

perception  The state of being aware of something — or the process of becoming aware of something — through use of the senses.

physical   (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination.

physiology  The branch of biology that deals with the everyday functions of living organisms and how their parts function.

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

questionnaire  A list of identical questions administered to a group of people to collect related information on each of them. The questions may be delivered by voice, online or in writing. Questionnaires may elicit opinions, health information (like sleep times, weight or items in the last day’s meals), descriptions of daily habits (how much exercise you get or how much TV do you watch) and demographic data (such as age, ethnic background, income and political affiliation).

self esteem    How a person collectively views one’s abilities, attractiveness and overall self-worth.

social media  Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr that allow people to connect with each other, often anonymously, and share information.

social network  Communities of people (or animals) that are interrelated owing to the way they relate to each other. In humans, this can involve sharing details of their life and interests on Twitter or Facebook, or perhaps belonging to the same sports team, religious group or school.

sociology   That field of science that studies the social behaviors of people, how they develop, and the organizations that they create to support communities of people. Scientists who work in this field are called sociologists.

statistics  The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.

stress  (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

technology  The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

tween    A child just approaching his or her teenage years. Tween is a term usually used for 11- to 12-years olds.

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