Researchers measured people’s physical and psychological responses while they used Facebook, performed a stressful task, or just relaxed, and found each of these activities appears to have a different effect on mood and arousal. Dr. Maurizio Mauri of the Institute of Human, Language and Environmental Sciences at IULM University in Milan, Italy, and colleagues, write about their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. A press statement on the study was released earlier this week.

In their background information, the researchers explain that few studies have tried to find out which aspects of the social networking experience makes sites like Facebook so successful, although it is known that their use can have both positive and negative effects.

For their study, they measured specific psychophysiological patterns in 30 healthy volunteers aged 19 to 25 during a three-minute exposure to each of three conditions: (1) while using Facebook (via their own personal accounts), (2) while observing a slide show of natural landscapes (a relaxation condition), or (3) while completing a Stroop test and mathematical task (a stress condition).

The Stroop test is often used to create a stressful condition in experiments: you are rapidly given names of colours (eg, RED, YELLOW, BLUE) and you have to say not the name that is spelled out but the colour of the letters (so if the word RED is written in blue, you have to say “blue”).

The measures included skin conductance, blood volume pulse, brainwave patterns (using electroencephalograms), muscle activity (using electromyography), breathing activity, and pupil dilation.

When they analyzed and compared the results, the researchers found that the pattern for Facebook use was significantly different to the patterns for stress and relaxation. And more than this, they found that the biological signals for Facebook use correspond to what they describe as the “Core Flow State”, a fairly new concept, which is characterized by “high positive valence and high arousal”.

Core Flow is a concept that is only just beginning to be pinned down in terms of objective measurements. Some researchers describe it as a state that people reach in which their skills are challenged and they are highly aroused and enjoying what they do. Others say it is like a biological signal that makes people want to repeat their experience, and some studies have found flow is linked to quality of performance and quality of life.

In terms of the use of Facebook in this study, the researchers saw flow as “an optimal experience” that people appreciate and seek out. While the experience of flow is subjective, they tentatively suggest it is characterized by “positive valence and high arousal”, which they attempted to assess with a cluster of measures that have been proposed in some previously unpublished studies.

The researchers conclude that their findings support the idea that the successful spread of social networking sites like Facebook might be linked to a specific cluster of positive emotional states that users experience when they use their accounts.

They suggest the study also helps to open up the new field of “affective computing”, which examines the emotional landscape of human-computer interactions.

According to comscore, social networking is the most popular online activity, reaching some 1.2 billion users worldwide (200 million more than email). Nearly one in 5 minutes online is spent on social networking, and 75% of that is on Facebook.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD