In Australia, researchers from The University of Queensland's School of Psychology have conducted two studies on how Facebook affects our self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Social networking sites - most notably Facebook - have had a powerful influence on how friendships are mediated in today's world.
A continually updating stream of information detailing the public activities, thoughts and feelings of friends enables a constant sense of connection. Some studies have observed that, in this sense, Facebook and related sites make it easier than ever to satisfy the need to belong.
But other studies have noted that this type of social interaction can also create opportunities for social rejection and bullying.
In general, research weighing up the psychological benefits and negative outcomes of this technology has been mixed in its findings - reflected in a recent Medical News Today feature on social media and mental wellbeing.
For instance, a 2013 study found that greater use of Facebook predicts negative outcomes, such as less satisfaction with life. But a 2007 study found that greater use of Facebook is associated with positive outcomes, such as enhanced social capital.
A study in 2011 discovered that high engagement with the "social contribution features" of Facebook - posting status updates and photos, commenting on other users' statuses and photos - was associated with lower levels of social loneliness. But that study also found that users who had stronger preferences for "passive consumption" - groups, games, fan pages - reported higher levels of social loneliness.
Further investigation into how users responded to specific types of interaction found that it was receiving composed text from other users - rather than one-click actions, such as a "like" - that predicted increases in social support and social capital experienced by the users.
Studying 'lurking' and Facebook ostracism
Expanding on this research, the new studies examined how "lurking" - passive Facebook participation - and ostracism on Facebook contribute to shaping users' sense of self-esteem and belonging.
In the first study, a sample of Facebook users who posted frequently were recruited and randomly assigned into groups. One group was asked to post as usual over the study period of 2 days, while the other group was instructed not to post during the same period. All participants could log in to Facebook and read information, but only the "post as usual" group were allowed to make public posts or respond to other people's posts.
"It is communication," the researchers claim, "rather than simple use, that is key in producing a sense of belonging."
Following the experiment, the researchers recorded the participants' levels of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence.
The researchers found that the "do not post" group reported lower levels of "belonging" and "meaningful existence" than those in the "post as usual" group. The authors say that this shows Facebook users experience lower need fulfillment when they refrain from sharing information.
Interestingly, the participants in the "post as usual" group reported less satisfaction with responses to their posts during the study period, and this was also associated with lower belonging and self-esteem than they normally experienced. The authors describe this finding as evidence that the lack of participation and feedback from their non-posting friends in the experiment threatened the posting group's sense of belonging.
In the second study by the team, participants came into the laboratory to make a status update on a Facebook account set up by the researchers. However, the researchers had conditioned the experiment so that only half of the participants posting a status update would receive a response.
Participants who received no feedback reported lower levels of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful activity than those who did receive feedback.
But because this was a lab-controlled experiment, with the feedback coming from profiles set up by researchers rather than the participants' own friends, it is not clear how this group might have otherwise been affected by being ostracized via their own Facebook profile.
In conclusion, the researchers write:
"Social networking sites, such as Facebook, give people on demand access to reminders of their social relationships and allow them to communicate with others whenever they desire. Our ﬁndings suggest that it is communication, rather than simple use, that is key in producing a sense of belonging. When sharing or feedback is restricted, belonging suffers."