Swiss researchers have debunked a United States study that suggests time spent on the social networking site Facebook makes people happier.
Back in 2007 Michigan State University found people who used Facebook frequently tended to have a lot of "social capital" – numerous close and distant friends – which led to a higher satisfaction with their lives.
But a Zurich University team say they have found a hole in Michigan's research as it does not consider why people use Facebook. When personality type is factored in, a different picture emerges.
The team, led by Bertolt Meyer, senior associate in social psychology at the Institute of Psychology at Zurich University, and lawyer Anett Cepela, saw that one personality type - extroverts - was more motivated to use Facebook and the Swiss say that the Michigan findings can only be applied to them.
Extroverts seek out contact with others and gain satisfaction from that contact, and as such are more likely to use the site than introverts, the team said. By virtue of their personality extroverts already had a higher social capital than less sociable people, and were therefore already happy.
"If you put extroversion into the Michigan equation the connection that the researchers found becomes spurious. The key finding of our study is that it is not Facebook use that makes you happy," Meyer told swissinfo.ch.
"If you are an extrovert you use Facebook a lot and if you are an extrovert you have a lot of contact with other people, regardless of Facebook, and that is probably what makes you happy. It is not Facebook."
Meyer's study was carried out among 681 people aged 13 to 89. Participants responded to an online questionnaire which was formulated to define their personality types, quantify their use of Facebook and other social networking sites, and find out at how satisfied they were in life.
Of the respondents, users of social networks were on average aged 26 and had an average of 187 friends on their most used site.
Just 62 people never used Facebook. In a separate finding, the study also showed there was a slight tendency for these Facebook abstainers to be more content with their life than those who were frequent users. But as their number was so small, Meyer said the findings needed to be taken "with a pinch of salt", and most probably were a reflection of age differences.
With its results now in, the Zurich University team is now finalising an article to be published in response to Michigan's study, The Benefits of Facebook Friends.
"We chose Facebook because it is one of the most popular social network sites if you look at it from a worldwide perspective. It is a pretty global phenomenon, and it is especially popular in Switzerland," Meyer said.
"Facebook has generated a lot of media attention recently. There are a lot of claims going around about Facebook, all these kinds of clichés that arise whenever a new technology becomes widely popular and is quickly adopted among the younger population. It was the same with TV."
"It is a very polarising issue. Since Facebook is the leading social network site in America, it is of course the prime target for social science research in America, and therefore if we want to contribute something to the discussion we have to employ the same means."
Around 300 million people are currently registered on Facebook, with 30 million postings made on the network daily. Facebook said it could not comment on the Zurich University study.
Adults and Social Network Websites, a 2009 study by Amanda Lenhart, found that 75 per cent of young users create profiles on social networking sites like MySpace to keep in touch with friends, meet new people and plan their social life.
"Research also shows that these profiles, especially for teenagers, are important when it comes to the formation of someone's social identity," said Urs Gasser, a professor at St Gallen University's Research Centre for Information Law and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
"Viewed from that angle, social networking sites are more than just platforms for information exchange. In the lives of young users, they play a more fundamental role in the constitution and expression of self."
More research was needed into the social networking phenomenon, he noted.
"New technologies that are under-researched with regard to social implications create fear and myths. There is definitely a need for more research - both looking into problems, for example long-term data protection issues as well as at opportunities, such as user-generated content."
Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch
Social networking in Switzerland
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, have become hugely popular, with around 80 per cent of Swiss young people using them.
There are around 1.1 million Facebook users in Switzerland. That's around one seventh of the total population. Facebook has more than 300 million users worldwide.
Roger Federer used Facebook to announce the birth of his twin daughters, while an enterprising Zurich man has developed PetSite.com, a kind of Facebook for animals and their owners.
StudiVZ – once sued by Facebook for having identical features - claims 15 million users across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, while Netlog says it has 54 million people registered in 25 languages.
However, not everyone is enthusiastic about these kind of sites. The Swiss data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, has called for data protection to be taught in schools in response to the popularity of social networking sites among children.
A survey by the Swiss Association of Data Protection Commissioners, the first of its kind in Switzerland and published in January 2009, revealed that although people were worried about web privacy in Switzerland they were still lax about what they put on the net.