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Stephanie posted this in Psychology on June 28th, 2010

Why do people let their barriers down online?

Why do people let their barriers down online?  The psychology of Internet Disclosure

Research suggests that many people are disclosing extremely personal information online, that they would not tell others normally – why?

A number of factors lead to this type of behaviour:

Firstly, online communications are more ‘sparse’ than face to face (e.g. no body language) and so people try to add in more information to build relationships.  One of the elements of relationship building normally is shared disclosure – as you get to know people better you give away more private information about yourself, and there is turn-taking as people build trust.  With an online system people can become what has been termed ‘hyper-personal’ – they give away more information than they would face to face to speed up the building of the relationship and develop trust with their ‘friends’.

Secondly, the open context of online networking is not clear.  You are sitting in the comfort of your own room, or office, and it feels more like having a private conversation, perhaps similar to in a pub, rather than broadcasting the information worldwide.  Research shows people have a limited understanding of privacy issues and tend not to use their privacy settings as well as they should.  They are also far more likely to assume that the risk is to other people, not themselves, (known as  ‘the perceptual hypothesis’).

Linked to that is the issue of defining a ‘friend’.  Face to face it is much more obvious to us who our friends really are – we would tend not to view 200 people in a large party a ‘friend’ and tell them all our private thoughts.  However, online many people view any contact as a ‘friend’ and indeed there is some competition around having a large number of these.  Again research shows that people have a relaxed approach to accepting ‘friends’, and tend to forget that these people are actually strangers yet can see everything they post.

Finally, there is gratification to be found from being online and sharing personal information – for some to the point of addiction. This gratification includes diversion and entertainment, identity construction and of course, building social relationships (or at least, the perception that you are building these).  You can be socialising without being social.  It can feel as though a great deal is being achieved very quickly and with little effort – you don’t even have to leave your house.  The whole process becomes routinised (and indeed expected by others).  Our own research suggests many young people keep updated online ‘because their friends expect them to’. 

As females have a tendency to be more ‘social’ and to have a stronger desire to build relationships, are more likely to divulge (or be the first in the relationship to divulge) personal information to build trust, this may be a particular issue for women.  However, research so far indicates that women spend more time in ‘offline’ social networking and less time online than men – this may be changing.

The assumption of systems such as twitter, is that people are starved for attention and/or starved for meaningless detail about people’s social lives – and humans (men and women) do like to gossip – again it becomes, at least for the technically savvy, something very simple to do ‘announcing to the world’ your current actions.  Updating your profile, or your twitter box, and being ‘followed’ can make some people feel as if they have achieved a level of social interest they do not experience in their ‘real’ lives.  On the other hand, the information given is not always flattering to themselves, although perhaps sometimes a disparaging comment about the self is intended to promote oneself as ‘fun’. There remains a buz from updating a profile to promote desirable social impressions – look I am busy/fun/interesting.  Women are potentially displaying the self in a more conscious way to a mass audience as if on a stage but are probably not totally aware of the size or nature of the audience.

Second Life adds another dimension to this for those who become immersed in their virtual life can identify very strongly with their avatar and feel as if they are really experiencing these virtual adventures (including affairs).  Again so much time may be ‘wasted’ online that the offline world starts to suffer.

An advantage of online social networking is that you can increase the regularity of contact with some more distant true ‘friends’ and can increase your ‘social capital’ – this can lead to feelings of well-being and can be very useful with business networking, for example.  (Although people tend to keep business networking separate to social, even using different sites – LinkedIn being most popular for developing business contacts – unfortunately they again forget that business contacts will also often see their ‘social’ activities on the other sites and many problems have arisen because of that.)

Further disadvantages (on top of the wrong people getting private information that you would not normally have shared) includes the risk of actually reducing the amount of ‘real’ socialising we do.  Online socialising has been called ‘para-social’ as it is does not give us the same levels of (social) support and does not, for example, reduce loneliness.  If women are privatizing their leisure time by excessive use of the internet they may be losing out on those important ‘real’ relationships.

Furthermore, it is possible that we become less reserved in the real world too – although the

Of course as always the evidence is unclear – in some studies there has been a positive relationship between online and offline social networking, in other words, the more you do of one the more the other increases!

Implications for society are that some people are reducing their face to face communication, living almost totally ‘online’ to the extent that they may even lose the ability to socialise well in person, using perhaps inappropriate online terminology face to face or becoming more introverted?  There is also a view that these more privatised forms of entertainment and socialising reduce trust and lead to a fragmented society – important changes that need to be considered…

A lot of the research has been done on teens or on older people (60+), more needs to be done on the remainder of the population.  For example some studies have suggested that the brains of younger people are changing and they are much less able to concentrate on one large document (or long conversation) as they spend so much time jumping between websites and texting.  Whether this is also an issue for more mature people has not been assessed.

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