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Is exposure to online content depicting risky behaviour related to viewers’ own risky behaviour offline?

By ucjujbl, on 4 July 2017

By Dr Dawn Branley, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds

The mass media frequently suggests that online content may influence viewers to engage in negative or risky behaviour, and previous research has linked social media use to online risky behaviours such as sharing personal information, sharing content that could negatively impact on the user’s career or friendships, and exchanging sexual content with strangers. However, we were interested in whether there is any indication that social media can exert its influence beyond the online world by effecting viewers’ offline behaviour. This study provides preliminary evidence that there is a link between content viewed online and engagement in congruent offline behaviour. However, we wish to stress that we do not suggest causality and there are multiple potential explanations for this link (including that users may be seeking content that reflects their own pre-existing behaviour or desirable behaviour). That said, this study still provides one of the first investigations of this relationship between the online and offline world. The study investigates all types of social media platform (with the exception of gaming and virtual worlds/role play platforms as we wish to investigate those platforms where identity is – at least somewhat – grounded in reality) and a wide range of risky behaviours. A significant relationship between exposure to online content and viewers’ own offline behaviour was found for six behaviours: drug use, excessive alcohol consumption, disordered eating, self-harm, violence towards others and sex with strangers. The relationship between exposure to online content depicting disordered eating and offline behaviour was only significant for females, suggesting that female users may be a) more vulnerable to the effects of content depicting disordered eating and/or b) more likely to use social media to find material related to their pre-existing behaviour.
With this study in mind we would be interested to hear other researchers’ thoughts and suggestions for future research. We also offer the following questions for discussion:

  1. This study provides preliminary indications of a link between viewing risky online content and engaging in congruent offline behaviour. We do not suggest causality at this stage. How would you personally approach investigating this link with the aim of identifying the nature of this relationship? We also make some suggestions of our own within the discussion section of our paper.
  2. What are your thoughts regarding the stronger relationship found for females in relation to content depicting disordered eating and viewers’ own engagement in disordered eating behaviour? Why do you think gender moderated this relationship and not the others (i.e., the other risk behaviours)?

For the full paper published in Computers in Human Behaviour: visit https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.05.023


Bio: Dr Dawn Branley is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. Dawn has previously specialised in cyberpsychology and was the first external researcher to be granted access to the Library of Congress (Washington D.C) Twitter archive. Recently she been involved in leading more health and social psychology projects around self-harm, suicide and behaviour change techniques to encourage positive health behaviours. However, Dawn will be making a return to cyberpsychology and cybersecurity in August as a Research Associate in Northumbria University’s Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab. She will also continue to work within digital health and behaviour change. You can follow Dawn on Twitter at @TheCyberPsyche, she is always happy to hear from other researchers in the field and potential future collaborations.

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