Psychology researchers often draw study participants from one relatively homogeneous group: undergraduates. That's too bad, because Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other social media have made a rainbow of research participants just as convenient as Psych 101 students, says Sam Gosling, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"We no longer have the excuse of relying on self-reports of undergraduates," Gosling says. "We can now reach out to other groups and see the actual electronic traces of their behavior."
His group studies how people express their personalities in their physical or virtual environments. They've found, for example, that people tend to express their real personalities on Facebook, rather than idealized versions of themselves, according to a 2008 study published in Psychological Science.
But along with the possible benefits, research using social media also comes with some issues to consider:
Privacy and Confidentiality
Institutional review boards often balk at studies that seek to analyze people's behavior on social media websites because it's ethically unclear whether Facebook, Twitter or other types of postings count as public or private behavior, and therefore require their authors' consent to be used in research.
"Technically, the information that you post on Facebook is publicly available," says Emily Christofides, a social psychology PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. But many people think of posts as private, and institutional review boards tend to back them up, she says. To avoid this problem, many psychologists obtain explicit permission from social media members they'd like to use in their studies.
Even with participants' permission, however, you can still run into trouble if you gather data from their friends and networks — people who have not given permission to be studied, says Nicole Ellison, PhD, a Michigan State University associate professor of telecommunication, information studies and media.
A commonly overlooked privacy problem is researchers' use of their own accounts — and associated friends' — to collect data that participants believe is limited to their "friends" network, she says. Ellison says that researchers can avoid this problem by only examining publicly available profiles that have no connections to their own. The safest way to make sure you're not unintentionally accessing privileged information is to use an account that has no friends or other connections, she says.
Different social networking sites and groups may also have different rules about soliciting research participants. For example, APA doesn't allow researchers to recruit study participants from its groups on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and elsewhere. (APA's full social media policy)
The practicality of collecting social media data can pose problems for researchers. Facebook's terms of service, for example, won't allow automated data collection, Ellison says. "You have to have some level of technical sophistication, so it's a little different than survey data," Ellison says.
In her research into perceptions of social capital, her group has worked with Bernie Hogan, PhD, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, to download and analyze social networks from Facebook. Their tool accesses only data that Facebook provides to any application, such as Farmville, and creates summary statistics for each respondent. It is these summary statistics, and not the networks themselves, that are used in the analysis.
Other researchers have solved the accessibility problem by asking study participants to download summaries of their own data — which Facebook allows — and then simply forward these summaries to the scientists. Other times, the easiest way is to create a page for the research project and then ask participants to "like" the page, allowing researchers access to their private information.
A few groups are working on psychology-specific applications that can collect data in a more automated fashion, Gosling says. But social media sites debut new software without warning, causing these data-collection programs to stop working overnight, he warns. Sites may change how users' profiles are linked to one another or how profile information is organized, and privacy settings are frequently altered.
"A study of Facebook a year ago is no longer relevant to what Facebook can do now," he says. "Researchers need to be aware that, without warning, their research can be derailed."
Though social media may give you access to a great variety of participants, social media users are not necessarily representative of any larger group, cautions Eszter Hargittai, PhD, a communications professor at Northwestern University. One study by Hargittai, published in 2007 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, found that socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity correlate with which social media site a person is most likely to use.
That's a weakness worth noting in your study's discussion section, but it shouldn't be a deal breaker, says Hargittai. "You could argue that this is a more diverse sample than usual."
"More than 85 percent of college students are on Facebook. That's a higher percentage than are in your psych classes," says Hargittai. Gosling agrees. Of course, "there are biases," he adds. "As in all research, multiple studies is the way to go."
In addition, the ethnic differences that Hargittai observed in her studies appear to have declined in recent years. Another demographic shift: It now appears that some teenagers are becoming less engaged with Facebook as their parents become more present on the site. "It's a moving target," Hargittai says.
Social media obviously have their limitations, says Christofides — "it's not really conducive to experimental research" — but they also allow researchers to study unobtrusively how people behave in real life. In her own work, she has found that spending time on Facebook can increase jealousy in romantic relationships, even among people not predisposed to become jealous, according to a study published in 2009 in CyberPsychology & Behavior.
And by combining smartphone tools with social media, psychologists are finding even better ways to study human behavior in real time, Gosling says. "We can find out what people are doing, where they go and why, how they communicate, what music they listen to, what emails they send, what they're interested in, what they take photos of," he says. "With the addition of smartphones, social media uses for psychologists are going to explode."
Melissa Lee Phillips is a writer in Seattle.