The more stress university students experience, the more likely they are to post more often to Facebook, as well as share more private and intimate details about their lives, according to new research by Assistant Professor J. Sophia Fu at SC&I and first author Renwen Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern University.
“When going through stressful situations such as the death of a family member, people may experience elevated negative emotions that prompt them to vent or seek support from others,” the authors said. “In this scenario, their intention to disclose may override their concerns about privacy, leading to more intimate Facebook posts. This is the first study, to the best of our knowledge, that examines how people handle privacy issues in times of stress.
“Our study suggests that users should think twice before posting on social media, especially when they're in a highly emotional state, to prevent unintended disclosures. More importantly, we think it's insufficient to rely on individuals to protect their privacy. Tech companies should also take actions to assist individuals’ privacy and security choices, probably with design features that nudge users toward more beneficial choices.”
The results of their study, which they based on a survey of 556 university students in Hong Kong, were published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in a paper titled “Privacy Management and Self Disclosure on Social Network Sites: The Moderating Effects of Stress and Gender.”
Zhang, who conducted the initial research in 2016, said she and Fu were interested in exploring this issue “in response to increasing college student suicides in Hong Kong due to the deterioration of their mental health in recent years, as a result of academic pressure and bleak socio-political situations. The initial goals were to understand how and why college students post on Facebook when they were stressed and the impact of Facebook use on their mental health.”
“This study has important practical implications,” the authors said. “It shows that while people may be adept at handling privacy issues on SNSs using varied strategies, stressful situations would make them less concerned about privacy, leading to more revelation of private information. This aligns with prior research on regret posting on social media.”
In addition, they also asked “What is the effect of gender on the hypothesized relationships? That is, how does gender moderate the relationship between privacy concerns, stress, and self-disclosure on SSNs? They discovered that gender differences do play a significant role in the types of posting the college students did.
“While both men and women tended to post as a means to seek out support, they sought different kinds of support,” the authors said. “We found that in stressful situations, men tend to disclose more frequently despite privacy concerns, whereas women disclose more intimately. It is possible that male users tend to use Facebook to forge new relationships and seek out resources more than female users do, and disclosing more frequently might help them garner social resources to cope with the problems. On the other hand, women may seek more emotional support compared to men, and intimate disclosures are likely to help them gain compassion and comfort from their friends.”
Their study focused on four dimensions of self-disclosure: amount, intimacy, honesty, and intent, because prior research has shown that these four dimensions have a significant impact on relational outcomes and psychological well-being of individuals.
In total, they examined eight stressors grouped in four types, including academic stressors (e.g., schoolwork overload, poor academic performance), interpersonal stressors (e.g., trouble with friends/parents), environmental stressors (e.g., change in sleeping/eating habits), and health stressors (e.g., death of a close family member).
Academic stressors were the most prevalent, reported by over 96% of the respondents. (More details about stress and depressive symptoms of college students in Hong Kong can be found in a previous study by Renwen Zhang (2017) published in Computer in Human Behavior).
It can be problematic for students to be so open on sites like Facebook, the authors said, because when people share private information on social networking sites such as Facebook they can become victims of cyberbullying, surveillance, and information or identity theft.
Zhang and Fu said they were inspired to conduct this research because privacy issues have become increasingly important in recent years, and few studies have examined how people protect privacy in stressful situations. They said, “It is highly relevant today as people are dealing with multiple stressors during the COVID-19.”