Disclosure on Social Media: The Blurred Lines of Online Interactions

by Lily Gamble, Nicholas Hay, Savannah Gilbreath and Katie Spradlin

            It is a well-accepted concept that individuals nowadays are willing to share more personal information at a higher frequency than they did twenty years ago. The continual integration of new media into the world has created a new landscape for communication. Specifically, the internet has shifted the culture of disclosure through platforms such as Facebook, leading to positive and negative implications among users. This phenomenon has blurred the lines of online interactions and is setting a new precedent within the area of communication.

The Disclosure Downfall

            In previous years, sharing mass amounts of information online was not commonly practiced because it went against the cultural norm, but being surrounded by constantly evolving and advancing technology has enabled people to adopt it as a way of life. It has been shown that when a person is continuously immersed in a specific environment, they “gradually change their behavior as a result of this exposure”[1]. This cultural shift has left users regularly keeping others informed about their activities, whereabouts and opinions, often leaving it public enough for virtually anyone to find.

           This tendency to post one’s entire life online has created a perception that privacy is less of a priority. When asked, users stated that privacy is of the utmost importance; however, it has been shown that users will claim privacy is a priority “yet behave in ways that are inconsistent with the protection of their personal information”[1]. Many believe younger demographics are the main culprits for this trend, going as far to say that “online adolescents naively tell all, only to fall prey to bullies, predators, or regret when they later realize the folly of their ways”[1]. Perhaps the issue is not so much that they are being too liberal with their disclosure, but rather that their constant engagement online allows anyone to know every aspect of their life.

            There is a misconception when exploring the exact differences between adolescents’ and adults’ postings on Facebook. While it may appear that younger audiences are more frivolous with their personal information, it has been shown that age does not play an important role in predicting what information a user may post [1]. In fact, the differences between adolescents’ and adults’ online disclosure lie not within the content but within the frequency of their posting. Adults disclose personal information online, but adolescents spend far more time on social media platforms, giving them more opportunities to disclose information [1].

            Unfortunately, these sharing methods of information can have detrimental effects. The compounding desire to be accepted by peers, through posting on social media, has left some users in an environment of distorted realities and opened themselves up to individuals with nefarious intentions. These new motivations have empowered users to seek out copious amounts of attention, regardless of the specific content.

           In the 1990s, most users preferred to keep their identities private because they collectively believed it to be good practice not to share private material. Before the year 2000 “students of all ages are posting personal information, conversation threads, blogs, and inappropriate pictures, which sometimes include illegal activity such as alcohol and narcotics use”[2].

          This evolution encourages the demand for new and exciting information to be shared. Such information is now easily accessible to cyberbullies, which has created complications for various entities including parents, school administrators, law enforcement officers and individuals nationwide [2]. A problem with cyberbullying is that it “removes all of the social cues that are learned through face-to-face interactions, and the bully and victim are left with caustic words being exchanged without any other interactions” [2]. Without a display of body language to filter bullying behavior and the accessibility of the internet, cyberbullies are able to have more frequent contact with their victims. In fact, through a survey of “588 male and female participants in grade 7 and 8…10% of respondents” admitted that they had been bullied online [2].

             Negative consequences of shared material in social media forums, such as cyberbullying, has not limited the amount of personal information that is posted each new day. The alarming rate at which people can find information about others has made users susceptible to becoming prey in this environment [2].

An Alternative Perspective

             Although there are clear arguments warning users to be more cautious and conservative with their online disclosure, in some cases, this oversharing can be the main reason criminal investigations end in a successful arrest or conviction. Because “Facebook users complete profiles that can contain up to about forty pieces of recognizable personal information,” including “names, general demographics, political views, and educational and employment history,” authorities can use that information to more effectively conduct their investigations [3].

            This transfer of information from Facebook to various authorities should not come as a shock to users, seeing that Facebook’s Terms of Service includes the explicit warning that it “may disclose information pursuant of subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matter) if [they] have a good faith belief that the response is required by law,” meaning that any current user has, by default, agreed to this and consents to its implementation [3].

            Impressively, it has proven to be extremely helpful. For example, Levine’s study discovered that “in Cincinnati, the FBI was able to arrest seventy individuals who were associated with a violent gang called the ‘Taliban’ by analyzing their connections on social networking sites,” which resulted in a “forty percent decrease in violent crimes in the area”[3].

            There are many other examples of how the capture, arrest or conviction of criminals through the acquisition of their online activity has greatly and positively impacted areas around the nation. The exponential increase of information being posted online has consequently gone on to greatly benefit communities across America.

            This expansion of social media has also stimulated a conversation regarding the lasting impression users have with their virtually constant engagement with social media platforms. In a study conducted in 2015, researchers set out to answer whether the immense cultural shift of disclosure has changed a person’s attitude in a positive or negative way when using Facebook.

            The researchers found that there are clear benefits of using social media, including “increased social capital, an enhanced sense of well-being and social and emotional support, and decreased depressive symptoms”[4]. Social capital can be defined as the number of relationships people have within their social sphere. The participants claimed that remaining optimistic, or what is referred to as having an “optimistic bias”, using privacy settings appropriately and possessing a broad, positive outlook on the practice of Facebook increased their satisfaction. “Users are increasingly mindful that the fashion in which they interact with others and engage with the content on Facebook can have an impact on their psychological health and social well-being”[4].

            Determining the effects of the cultural shift in online disclosure is entirely dependent on the user; however, the research conducted has proved there is a positive correlation between Facebook and its users. The impact users have when receiving likes, shares, comments and messages through social media is a positive one for their confidence and overall well-being. When used as desired, and in an appropriate way, one’s experience with social media can be extremely gratifying.

Continuing the Discussion

            There is no debate whether or not the internet has shifted the culture of disclosure, but with that shift has come positive and negative ramifications. Constant posting has inadvertently allowed cyberbullies to gather more data about a person to carry out their bullying without having a person-to-person interaction. Conversely, the shift has increased the efficiency of some law enforcement agencies to decrease criminal activity. There are both emotional benefits and potential harms that come along with the use of these outlets; however, with a common sense approach to what is being posted online, people can empower themselves through social media and minimize any negative backlash. Moving forward, it will be vital to continue exploring the different effects this culture shift has created, not only within the United States but across the world, as well. An understanding of this phenomenon will enable future generations to better analyze their online behavior and ensure that they are practicing safe, yet culturally normative, social media habits.

[1] Christofides, E., Muise, A., & Desmarais, S. (2011, May 17). Hey Mom, What’s on Your Facebook? Comparing Facebook Disclosure and Privacy in Adolescents and Adults.  doi: 10.1177/1948550611408619

[2] Kite, S. L., Gable, R., & Filippelli, L. (2010). Assessing Middle School Students’ Knowledge of Conduct and Consequences and Their Behaviors Regarding the Use of Social Networking Sites. Clearing House, 83(5), 158-163. doi:10.1080/00098650903505365

[3] Levine, D. (2011). Facebook and Social Networks: the Government’s Newest Playground for Information and the Laws That Haven’t Quite Kept Pace. Hastings Communications & Entertainment Law Journal (Comm/Ent), 33(3), 481-498

[4] Kim, S. J., & Hancock, J. T. (2015). Optimistic Bias and Facebook Use: Self-Other Discrepancies About Potential Risks and Benefits of Facebook Use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 18(4), 214-220. doi:10.1089/cyber.2014.0656

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s