'Facebookers' with large followings are at increased risk, study shows

Users of social network sites – such as Facebook and LinkedIn – who have large and diverse followings are at an increased risk of reputational, psychological and even physical harm, research by Nottingham Trent University shows.

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The study was by the School of Social Sciences

Users of social network sites – such as Facebook and LinkedIn - who have large and diverse followings are at an increased risk of reputational, psychological and even physical harm, research by Nottingham Trent University shows.

Those with large and varied networks are more prone to fall victim to harassment, data privacy breaches, exposure to inappropriate content and gossiping, according to the study.

One reason is because they are less able to manage the flow of information than those with smaller followings.

The study found that the larger the network, the more likely users are to forget the context of their audience. This makes them more prone to post information which is unsuitable for all connections, potentially leading to flashpoints, damage to their reputation or sensitive data being put in the wrong hands.

In turn, people with large networks are also more likely to be exposed to unsuitable material themselves, which could cause them psychological harm.

Researcher Sarah Buglass, of the University's School of Social Sciences, will present the study at a British Psychological Society conference, on 10 September.

"Offline people tend to compartmentalise the individuals they encounter in day to day life," she said. "Friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances are in many cases kept quite separate, enabling people to effectively manage their personas with each.

"However, on sites such as Facebook, these often diverse connections are allowed to digitally mingle. Social boundaries are collapsed, with information in many cases being shared to all.

"As network size increases, the ability to remember who, or in the case of misclassified profiles, what you are connected to, becomes increasingly more difficult, and the management of these networks more complex.

"As a result, people are leaving themselves open to online vulnerability as the information they share may not be suitable for all of their connections – risking damage not only to their reputations or potential harassment from disgruntled parties, but also increasing the potential for falling victim to data misuse."

The study – of 177 UK-based Facebook users – showed that 89% reported having their profiles set to 'friends only', but just 22% used additional filtering options, which can improve safety.

Although many social network sites allow users to cluster their contacts into different groups, not everyone does so and users still remain at risk of forgetting the full context of these subgroups.

By contrast people with smaller networks, of up to 150 connections, were found to be more able to manage the flow of information because they are more aware of who they share their posts with.

"People need to be mindful of adding everyone and everything they encounter to their online social network," said Mrs Buglass.

"Unless these networks are effectively managed and filtered, people are leaving themselves open to a whole host of potential online vulnerabilities which may lead to negative consequences for their psychological, reputational and even physical wellbeing."

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Chris Birkle, Press Officer, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 2310, or via email; or Dave Rogers, Head of Communications, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8782, or via email.

    The British Psychological Society's Developmental and Social Psychology Section annual conference takes place from the 9 to 11 September at The Palace Hotel in Manchester.

    The British Psychological Society is the representative body for psychology and psychologists in the UK. We are responsible for the development, promotion and application of psychology for the public good. For more information please visit the British Psychological Society website.

    The study has also been published in Computers in Human Behavior: Buglass, S. L., Binder, J. F., Betts, L. R., & Underwood, J. D. (2016). When 'friends' collide: Social heterogeneity and user vulnerability on social network sites. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 62-72.

'Facebookers' with large followings are at increased risk, study shows

Published on 8 September 2015
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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