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Facebook Use Consoles Students After Campus Shootings, Temporarily

Many students at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, two sites of deadly campus shootings in recent years, turned to Facebook as a way to cope. But was the social network an effective outlet for their grief? A study whose results were published last month found that students reported short-term benefits but no long-term effect from reaching out to friends via Facebook.

The study was conducted by Amanda Vicary, a doctoral student in social-personality psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and R. Chris Fraley, an associate professor of psychology at the institution. Ms. Vicary was inspired to perform the study after observing the Facebook activities of many of her friends immediately following the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Mr. Fraley, who is also Ms. Vicary’s faculty adviser, was eager to help contribute to her research.

“We use the Internet as a means for communicating with friends and family,” Mr. Fraley said. “We use it to find mates, and we even use it to express our identities. Understanding the way something as fundamental as how grieving plays out online is a crucial next step in psychological research.”

Two weeks after each incident, Ms. Vicary sent Facebook messages to 900 randomly selected students at both institutions, asking them to participate in an online survey. A combined 124 Virginia Tech and 160 Northern Illinois students responded.

The survey attempted to gain quantitative information about the students’ virtual and psychological behavior, ranging from asking how many Facebook messages they posted about the events to self-reporting symptoms of both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. She also asked the students to respond on a five-point subjective scale regarding how the Internet interactions made them feel—with a score of five indicating subjects feeling “a lot better” and a score of  one indicating “a lot worse.” A vast majority had reported suffering from symptoms of depression (71 percent) or PTSD (64 percent).

In the same group, however, 89 percent of the students had joined at least one Facebook group about the shootings, and more than 60 percent had started a conversation about the event on a friend’s Facebook wall. Students generally reported feeling better after such interactions—with the average reaction score being 3.57 for joining a Facebook group, and 3.72 for a wall posting.

A similar survey was sent to most of the same students six weeks later, with 116 students responding. The depressive and PTSD symptoms had decreased by more than 40 percent. When Ms. Vicary analyzed whether the decline in symptoms had any relationship to the amount of Facebook interactions on a long-term scale, she found there was no significant relationship between the two.

When she began the study, Ms. Vicary didn’t know what to expect. If anything, she anticipated that Internet interactions may prove harmful to psychological well-being.

“There was this slant in the media that it may be hurting students, since they are not going down the hall to talk to their friends about it,” Ms. Vicary said. “Since communicating on the Internet and Facebook have become as much of a part of students’ lives as face-to-face interaction, it was able to become an outlet for them.”

She said it may be harder to explain why the Internet didn’t contribute to a longer-term impact, saying that she did not have a control group of students who do not use social networks. However, she guessed that the real-time nature of the medium may make it more conducive to producing immediate gratification.

“Even though we can’t say the Internet use either harmed or helped the student, the important finding is that they reported feeling better, even if briefly,” Ms. Vicary said.

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