Self-esteem influences how Facebook users react to portraying their true selves online

People with lower self-esteem don’t feel good about presenting themselves authentically on the social networking website Facebook, according to new research published in Computers in Human Behavior.

“Facebook is a rich site for research, enabling various forms of user engagement, but also considerable information exposure. Previous evidence in the social media literature indicates that Facebook is indeed a double-edged sword where engagement with the platform can positively or negatively influence users’ subjective well-being (SWB),” said Wonseok (Eric) Jang, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and corresponding author of the study.

“Studies have found that some forms of social support (e.g., the ‘Like’ button or supportive comments) from Facebook friends results in a greater degree of SWB, whereas other research has documented that when Facebook users adopt a comparative mindset, engagement with Facebook lowers SWB via feelings of envy,” Jang said.

“Due to these conflicting patterns, we were interested in examining whether the type of self-presentation strategy that users adopt on the platform influences what they get out of Facebook use, particularly if psychological rewards derived from engaging with the medium depend on one’s level of self-esteem.”

The researchers examined two different ways that people can portray themselves on social networking websites: true self-presentation and strategic self-presentation. In the former, people provide an honest reflection of themselves and their life. In the latter, people selectively disclose only positive content to create a more favorable impression of themselves.

In the study, 278 Facebook users were instructed to post content reflecting their true selves or strategic selves to Facebook before completing a scientific questionnaire.

The researchers found that true self-presentation was associated with greater happiness after posting to Facebook only for high self-esteem users, not for low self-esteem users. Strategic self-presentation, on the other hand, made both high and low self-esteem users happy.

“Our findings suggest that users with low self-esteem may use Facebook as an effective platform to enhance their sense of SWB by highlighting their most desirable characteristics,” Jang told PsyPost. “In general, low self-esteem individuals are reluctant to express their positive characteristics to others because they are not confident about their image and perceive themselves as less socially attractive than people with high self-esteem.”

“In the context of Facebook, we found that people perceive the social media platform as a relatively safe environment because users can determine their friends and control what they share. The opportunities for embarrassment are thus reduced compared to in-person interactions, which are more unpredictable. Low self-esteem individuals may thus use Facebook as a platform to share aspect of themselves including their most desirable and positive characteristics to enhance their attractiveness and, in turn, heighten their SWB.”

The study has some limitations.

“It is not yet clear whether the gain in SWB we are seeing for low self-esteem users are enduring or disappear rapidly,” Jang explained. “Facebook users may enhance their level of SWB right after posting new messages or images but such benefits may decay over time, or even quite quickly.”

“Future research should examine whether Facebook use has short- or long-term effects on users’ SWB and other positive outcomes. It would be especially interesting to examine whether such effects are determined by the type of self-presentation strategy (e.g., presenting a true self vs. presenting a strategic self) that users adopt while interacting with others.”

“At this troubled time for Facebook and other social media platforms, we think investigating long-term outcomes from regular and consistent use of social media should be prioritized,” Jang added. “At present, there is still a limited understanding of whether the effects of Facebook use on user well-being are short-lived or enduring.”

“Such insight could have important implications for broader public attitudes toward these growing avenues of social influence. Thus, scholars should incorporate longitudinal designs into their social media research and consider sustained influence on user psychology.”

The study, “Self-esteem moderates the influence of self-presentation style on Facebook users’ sense of subjective well-being“, was authored by Wonseok (Eric) Jang, Erik Bucy, and Janice Cho.