Facebook Use During Deployment: Bane or Boon?

Male Soldier looking at cellphone
Photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Suzanne Ringle
By Nancy A. Skopp, Ph.D.
August 13, 2018

Facebook allows instant and effortless social interaction from any geographic location with Internet connectivity and is a daily ritual in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. For deployed service members, Facebook provides an opportunity to maintain a connection to family and friends in a way that was impossible prior to the advent of social networking sites. But, is there a downside to such connection during deployment?

By now, most people are aware of potential negative aspects related to Facebook use, sometimes referred to as “Facebook depression.” Scientific research shows that Facebook use can, in fact, relate to undesirable emotions and distress. Such problems may in part stem from comparisons users make between themselves and others’ profiles, which are judged to be enviable and superior in some way to their own. There is evidence of an association between using Facebook to enhance one’s online image, perhaps to the point of over idealization, and unpleasant emotional states and social disconnection. Other ways Facebook may be misused and result in negative consequences include regret about posts, adverse impacts on relationships, or work problems as a result of social media activity.

Yet many positive outcomes have also been attributed to Facebook use.

Research suggests that Facebook use may potentially serve a protective function among deployed service members. One way it can help deployed service members is by supporting psychological resilience during and following deployment. This can happen by instilling deployed Facebook users with a sense that help is available should the need arise. Research shows that people with larger online and off-line social networks have a stronger sense that people are available to help in times of stress, compared to people with smaller networks. It is well-established that such perceptions of social support – not actual support received or accessed – are highly protective against the development of physical and psychological problems. Furthermore, research shows that perceptions of social support can help post-deployment coping and lessen distress and depressive feelings in war veterans.

But how much is too much?

My colleagues and I recently published a study conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Army in which we examined Facebook use among 166 active-duty service members deployed to Afghanistan. Results showed that the more time deployed service members spent on Facebook the less socially supported they felt. Why? Part of the issue may be that, like their civilian counterparts, more time on Facebook translates to more exposure to online boasting and more time to notice other people’s apparently exciting lives, relative to what may be going on in theater. Frequent Facebook use also may highlight important social events that are missed and lead to homesickness, the sense that life is moving on, or jealousy (e.g., why is my partner/spouse communicating with so-and-so). Constant connection to life back home can also provide easy access to problems and stressors that cannot be addressed from down range. For instance, family back home may unintentionally burden deployed service members by sharing problems (e.g., financial stress, child and relationship problems) in real time.

Some military experts speculate that too much social media use in theater keeps service members from bonding with others in their units because of an urgency to get a “technology fix.” This may lead to isolation, disconnection from the mission, and loss of camaraderie. Also, deployed service members may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences with others far removed from the realities of war. In short, Facebook use during deployment could lessen opportunities to bond and debrief with other deployed service members and produce a sense of isolation and distress.

So is Facebook helpful or harmful during deployment?

Like most things in life, balance is likely to be a useful guide. Keeping in touch with friends and family back home through social media is an incredible advancement over earlier times. Social media undoubtedly allows some service members to maintain a connection in a way that promotes well-being and other desired social benefits. Excessive Facebook use, however, may distract some service members from the military mission and detract from time spent actually interacting with their unit, leading to less cohesion and the processing of day-to-day warzone experiences. Providing pre-deployment education on potential benefits and pitfalls of social media use and placing reasonable limits on the amount and frequency of use may help service members to find the right balance.

Skopp is a research psychologist at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence West at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, WA. She is also an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington (UW) Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Her expertise is in military psychological health research.

The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.

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