Facebook and the Big Chill

Users are self-censoring their day-to-day activities to avoid disapproval from online friends and family, blurring our online and offline lives.

Dr David Houghton, Lecturer in Marketing at Birmingham Business school worked with colleagues from the universities of Edinburgh and Bath to examine the ‘extended chilling effect’; the way that people may act differently in the offline world to avoid disapproval online.

Past research has demonstrated a ‘chilling effect’ where people constrain themselves on social networking sites due to surveillance from their peers. This study is the first time the ‘extended’ effect has been shown.

The study involved interviews and experiments with over 100 young Facebook users aged between 19 and 22 who were given a range of questions or scenarios to judge how they would react.  These included determining whether they had ever changed their actions at party if they thought they might be photographed and finding out if they had ever asked anyone not to upload a photo they were in.

The results showed that changing behaviour, for example hiding a cigarette at a party, was common.

“When a picture is being taken and you are having the occasional cigarette that you don’t want your parents to see on Facebook, then you put your arm around your back and pretend it’s not happening and burn the girls shirt who’s stood behind." Harry

Participants also said they would avoid taking or appearing in unflattering pictures, for example while sunbathing, if there was a possibility they might appear online.

“I wouldn’t take my camera out on a beach or something. […] Because I wouldn’t want pictures of me, and my friends wouldn’t want pictures of them, like, in bikinis on Facebook.” Carol

It was also common for them to plead for information not to be put on Facebook.

“I’ve been kissing someone and I’ve seen the flash go off, I’m like, ‘oh my god’, I’m like, please don’t tag me in that picture.” Emma.

Further experiments looked at whether participants would take a trip to a range of different leisure locations - including a theme park and an adult entertainment venue - if they knew details of the excursion would later appear on Facebook.

In general, participants said they would avoid the riskier adult venue if details were going to appear on social media suggesting they would change their offline behaviour if it would reflect badly on their online persona.

As on and offline lives become increasingly blurred, the research supports the idea that people are becoming more inhibited for fear that their actions might be visible to online audiences like partners, families and colleagues.

Dr David Houghton said: “The increased accessibility of our personal persona to different types of people online make our offline lives a trickier juggling act than ever before.

“A once seemingly innocuous photo or video clip can now be the subject of more persevering anxiety, and our research shows this extends to bridge the gap between our online and offline lives.”