A common practice nowadays is Facebook stalking, not to be confused with as serious an issue as the unhealthy and obsessive tracking of strangers. Facebook stalking is the seemingly harmless act of looking up someone's Facebook profile before meeting them in person. When looking at someone's Facebook, people can use basic information, such as age and ethnicity, or look at photos and posts to extrapolate something about that person's personality. Essentially, people can meet online with no real world social interaction at all. Facebook stalking serves as a precursor to actually meeting someone. And in some ways, this can erase some nervousness about meeting new people because one will go into the process already knowing the person.

Some researchers claim that people are motivated to maintain social media for two reasons: to belong in society, and to maintain their images. In a study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, Dr. Shannon M. Rauch shows the physiological effects of Facebook exposure on people.

Profile Prowling

In this experiment, she examined levels of physiological arousal in participants exposed to Facebook. Rauch measured physiological arousal using skin conductance. Also known as galvanic skin response, skin conductance is the method of measuring how easily electricity flows. Measurements were taken at different intervals during the experiment.

Participants were given the task of matching a person to their Facebook profile under one of four randomly assigned conditions:

  • Looking only at Facebook profiles then matching pictures
  • Looking at someone's Facebook with them somewhere in the room
  • Looking at someone's Facebook then meeting them in person
  • Meeting in person then looking at their Facebook profile

The Facebook information provided was basic information about a person, accompanied by 26 photos. For two minutes, participants would read information and flip through pictures to familiarize themselves with the person they needed to identify.

Meeting Online Does Not Relieve Anxieties of Meeting in Person

One would think that gradually knowing a person online might make meeting them in person easier. However, the results showed that participants had lower levels of skin conductance when looking at Facebook, than when participants met the person in real life. Rauch and her team then concluded that “the act of viewing someone on Facebook thus appears to be a less arousing experience than a face-to-face encounter, even when such an encounter does not involve any interaction on the part of the participant." If participants were more comfortable with the encounter, then they should have displayed skin conductance levels similar or lower to those measured during the Facebook stalking. However, the experiment showed otherwise.

Rauch believes that more research needs to be done on the connection between anxiety and social media, but suggests that her findings can be used as an “indirect indicator of anxious feelings." Because participants exhibited higher skin conductance readings when meeting in person, the data suggests that Facebook stalking prior to meeting might not lessen physiological arousal. Keep in mind that this is only a reading of skin conductance, and not of anxiety. Rauch thinks that their study can be seen as “some initial physiological evidence that social media 'warm-up time' is likely not helpful for those who experience social anxiety."

Rauch's Opinions on Social Media Anxiety

Facebook stalking has integrated itself into the process of meeting new people. And because of this, people have become more obsessive about their image on social media. “For many people, constant use of social media is equivalent to being constantly preoccupied with what others think," says Dr. Shannon M. Rauch.

In a different data analysis of this experiment, Rauch observed that participants with higher levels of anxiety experienced increased levels of skin conductance than participants with lower levels of anxiety. However, Rauch does not conclude that there is a correlation between Facebook exposure and anxiety because participants were not asked to express their emotions. On the matter, Rauch states that, “the most direct way of alleviating this anxiety is probably to 'unplug' for periods of time." So when it comes to the social anxieties of meeting someone new, try doing it the old-fashioned way and go straight up to them—in person.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: October 23, 2015