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Social media culture encourages ‘inappropriate’ behaviour

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Risky social media posts are not just due to impulsivity, but might be a deliberate strategy to fit in with the wider social media culture that makes people believe “it’s the right thing to do”.

A new study by the University of Plymouth investigated why young adults might post content on social media that contains sexual or offensive material.

“Culture as a whole seems to play a part in what type of content is shared”

Claire White

Previous studies showed that impulsiveness was predictive of online risk taking behaviours. But the new research, involving 178 UK and Italian young adults, highlighted that high self-monitoring – or adapting behaviour in line with perceived social norms – was equally predictive.

Lead study author Dr Claire White, from the university’s school of psychology, said this finding could mean young people think it is the best way to behave.

To measure risky online self-presentation the research team designed a risk exposure scale relating to potentially inappropriate images or texts, such as drug and alcohol use, sexual content, personal information, and offensive material. They also evaluated people’s level of self-monitoring and impulsivity.

Dr White said: “It’s counter-intuitive really, because it would be easy to assume that a high self-monitor would question their actions and adapt accordingly.

“But the results show that high self-monitors are just as likely to post risky content as those in the study who are more impulsive, which suggests they think it’s not only OK to be risky – and potentially offensive – but that it’s actually the right thing to do,” she said.

“The only notable difference between the nationalities was that British students were more likely to post comments and images related to their alcohol and drug use on social media, whereas their Italian counterparts were more likely to post offensive content and personal information,” she said.

“This difference shows that culture as a whole seems to play a part in what type of content is shared,” said Dr White.

“But the fact that the behaviours predicting risky online choices are the same for both nationalities suggests there’s a wider social media culture that encourages this type of risk-taking behaviour,” he added.

The study findings are published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

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