What are the potential risks of social media?

This article is based on research by Alexis Mavrommatis

Since the Harvard launch of "TheFacebook" in 2004, social media networks have steadily grown in importance in the everyday lives of billions of users worldwide. Over two thirds of US adults now access Facebook daily, and 88% of young people use some kind of social media every day.

While social media undoubtedly brings many benefits to the lives of its users, its complexity means there may be more going on than is clear on the surface. A growing body of research suggests many potential "dark sides" to be aware of.

Esade Associate Professor Alexis Mavrommatis recently published a paper in the European Management Journal together with Sean Sands and Carla Ferraro (Swinburne University of Technology, Victoria), and Colin Campbell (San Diego School of Business), exploring how users recognise and respond to these risks.

Categorising the risks

The researchers categorised the risk areas into the following seven segments, related to the activities carried out within social media applications – which tend to be similar across platforms and networks:

  1. Conversations: the heart of the social experience on many platforms, but open to misuse through the propagation of inaccurate advice, as well as "trolling" or aggression.
  2. Sharing: links and content can be passed on to exponential numbers of followers and friends so easily that medical metaphors for contagion are often used. The risks include deliberate or accidental spreading of "fake news", non-consensual sharing of private content, and being exposed to upsetting or undesirable content.
  3. Presence: the ability to see when others are online is fundamental to the synchronous social communication flow, but frequently default settings combined with user ignorance leak surplus information unknowingly. The risks range from helping brands target your weaknesses and preferences in ways you never dreamed possible, to accidental disclosure of associations or even your physical location.
    Social media risks
    Younger generations have to live with the fact that every comment or photo is out there forever (Photo: Brenda Ceclec/Twenty20)
  4. Relationships: arguably, social media has transformed and, in many cases, enhanced our interpersonal relationships. However, it has also made possible risks from bullying, harassment and over-sharing, which have had an incalculable cost for many individuals.
  5. Reputation: digital content is very hard to erase permanently. Pre-millennial digital immigrants may be relieved that their youthful mistakes took place in an era before everything they did was tagged, uploaded and shared; younger generations now have to live with the fact that every comment or photo is out there forever, to potentially resurface and blight future careers and relationships.
  6. Groups: with the elimination of geographical boundaries, communities of interest proliferate on social media, often providing positive support and reassurance. But society has always had in-crowds and out-crowds, and in addition to exclusion and difference-magnification, private groups can escalate extremist behaviour and opinion formation.
  7. Identity: closely related to both presence and reputation, the ability to be able to choose and curate our social media presence has long-term implications for how we see ourselves and others, not to mention how social media organisations and their sponsors see us too.

How to manage social media more safely

The extent to which individual users are aware of or care about these risks clearly varies a lot. Nevertheless, there are things people can consciously do to make their relationship with social media more psychologically healthy.

Simply using social media less is one option, and a range of apps and tactics exist to provide a "digital detox" or just a bit of phone-free downtime.

But the best way to manage our use of these networks is to take control of our interaction with them, which starts by understanding the relationships we are in. As Facebook would say, "it’s complicated." Back in 2011, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff first pointed out that because it is ad-funded and free at the point of delivery, we are not the customer of social media; we are in fact the product. More recently, in The age of surveillance capitalism (2019) Shoshana Zuboff refined this to point out that our behaviour – deliberate or surplus – is actually the monetisable asset in question.

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So we can take back control, by controlling our behaviour. Mavrommatis and colleagues suggest we start with full awareness of the "echo chamber" effect by which our social feeds get distorted and reinforced, as the network serves up more and more of what we already believe and want to see.

The societal effects of this in terms of polarising views are highly dangerous, and such information bubbles directly affect our view of the world if we let them. Like Zuboff, the research team further recommend greater awareness and control of our privacy and identity, and being more conscious of what we reveal about who we are and what we think.

The best way to manage our use of social media networks is to take control of our interaction with them

The future of social media risk

By investigating how people feel about social media risks and the practical strategies they can use to overcome them, this research is part of a growing wave of evidence that sheds light on the dark side of these tools, which have come to pervade our lives and influence our relationships in ways their initial creators never dreamed of.

The authors learned that people differ widely in their views of the risks involved, even while limited to a US sample, and they also acknowledge that this area is a fast-moving target, with new networks appearing and evolving continually.

This snapshot was taken before Covid-19 led us to reconsider our relationships with both information and each other. But it provides timely food for thought about how we use and relate to these multinational businesses, which now seem an inextricable part of our lives.

Original research publication: Sands S, Campbell C, Ferraro C & Mavrommatis A. Seeing light in the dark: Investigating the dark side of social media and user response strategies, European Management Journal, 38(01), 45-53 (2020)

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.