Awkward Moments On Facebook Can Cause Anxiety For Many
December 10, 2013

Embarrassing Facebook Posts May Cause Anguish For Months

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A new study finds that embarrassing Facebook posts can cause far more than merely a chuckle, with some people feeling anguish and anxiety months after their awkward post.

"Almost every participant in the study could describe something that happened on Facebook in the past six months that was embarrassing or made them feel awkward or uncomfortable,” said study author Jeremy Birnholtz, assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Northwestern University and director of the university’s Social Media Lab.

“We were interested in the strength of the emotional response to this type of encounter,” he told Erin White of Northwestern University Newscenter.

The study found that the people most concerned about social appropriateness – high self monitors – and those with a diverse network of Facebook friends such as co-workers, clients and friends, are more likely to strongly experience a so-called “face threat,” whereas people who felt they had mastered their Facebook skills said they took these kinds of threats less seriously.

"Perhaps people with more Facebook experience, who know how to control settings, delete pictures and comments and untag, think they knew how to deal with these encounters or at least try to deal with them," Birnholtz said.

Interestingly, people with a high level of general Internet skills, who likely understand the importance of online reputations, also reported more severe reactions to face threats, Birnholtz said.

The researchers conducted their study by recruiting 165 Facebook users through Craigslist and university websites, of which only 15 had not experienced some kind of face threat in the past six months.

Participants were asked to describe a recent uncomfortable Facebook experience and rate the severity of the threat on a scale of one to five. The researchers also gathered and analyzed the participants’ personality type, Internet and Facebook skills, and the size and diversity of their Facebook network.

The most commonly reported threat (45 percent of participants) was a so-called “norm violation,” in which social norms are violated and one’s behavior is exposed in a way that could lead to social and emotional consequences.

“I went to a concert with a friend. I had to miss a mandatory meeting to be there ... the friend didn't know I wasn't supposed to be going so tagged me in a status saying I was at the venue. My meeting friends found out and were super angry,” read one example the researchers gave of a norm violation.

The second most commonly reported threat was “ideal self-presentation violations,” in which content posted is inconsistent with the manner in which a person wishes to appear to their Facebook friends.

“I felt uncomfortable when my boyfriend posted an article about condoms on my Facebook wall ... my mom reads my Facebook, and I didn't want her to see that (even though she knows we are sexually active),” read one example from the study.

The third most common threat was “association effects,” which involve people worrying about their self-presentation because of how someone they associate with on Facebook is presenting himself. About 21 percent of study participants said they had experienced this violation.

“A friend posted a link to an image that she thought was funny on my wall...I was slightly embarrassed because I did not find the image funny and I was worried about how my other Facebook friends would think of me for having the link on my wall. I did not want my other Facebook friends to think that I was the type of person to find the image funny,” a participant said when describing an association effect.

“Aggregate effects,” which occurs when a person’s content gains higher visibility within his or her network as more people like it or comment on it, was the least common threat reported in the study, with just five percent of participants having experienced it.

Such unexpected attention can sometimes cause a person to feel self-conscious about their self-presentation.

“A friend of mine commented on a picture I forgot I had posted of me with my ex-boyfriend and it showed in the newsfeed,” said one participant.

Birnholtz said these threats can sometimes occur when people are unaware of their Facebook settings.

"People can make bad decisions when posting to your Facebook because they don’t have a good idea of your privacy settings and which friends of yours might see this content,” Birnholtz said.

“Facebook doesn’t provide a lot of cues as to how friends want to present themselves to their audience."

In the future, Facebook could offer more pop-ups and suggestions to help people think twice before posting a possible “threat” to a friend’s page, he added.

The paper will be presented in February at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in Baltimore.