USF social media professor dives into online followers and influencers

Professor Kelli Burns researches the perception-driven social media impact.
Kelli S. Burns research interests include social media influencers; the intersection of social media and popular culture; and social media data analytics.
Kelli S. Burns research interests include social media influencers; the intersection of social media and popular culture; and social media data analytics. [ Photo: Courtesy Kelli Burns ]
Published March 5, 2022|Updated March 5, 2022

Professor Kelli Burns researches the perception-driven social media impact

Times Correspondent

Kelli Burns, associate professor at the University of South Florida, Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications is an expert on social media. She is credited with writing two books and a number of articles on social media in academic journals. Burns, who earned a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Florida, said social media sites were becoming popular at about that time.

“In 2005 I joined Facebook, and I realized that social media platforms were not going away, and that this could be a fruitful area for research; and it definitely has been over the years,’’ she said.

Burns, 51, talked about social media with the Tampa Bay Times.

What are you now researching?

My recent research has focused on social media influencers, and I am most interested in the impact of the influencers on their followers.

Who are the influencers?

Influencers are people who are social media users, those who really have large followings, and many influencers are trying to... earn a living off of their social media efforts. … They are either promoting brand products to showcase on social media, or they (influencers) are maybe promoting themselves in some way and services that they might be able to offer.

What are you finding?

Some of the areas that I’ve looked into are the “envy” that followers will feel for the influencers that they are following. I’ve also looked at how it can impact the consumption habits of followers. The third dimension would be how influencers make followers feel about themselves; and how it changes their perceptions of self. ...

I haven’t delved into the demographics. I’ve mostly focused on talking to young women who follow influencers. I get women who are students here at USF. As far as envy goes, they’re envious… of two aspects of the influencers: They’re envious, for one, with how the influencer benefits from their position. That could be in the form of the free products that they’re getting. … The followers would like to be an influencer as well, so they’re envious that somebody has been able to build a business where they haven’t been successful in doing so themselves.

What about self-perception?

What I have found is that people look at influencers, and it makes them feel sad about their own lives to some extent. They might be sad that they’re not living an interesting life that they’re seeing someone else projecting on social media. … It seems influencers make followers take a hard look at their own lives, and this is where these perceptions of self-come into the equation.

Have studies shown that the more time people spend on social media the worse they feel about themselves?

The research seems to say that if people are well-adjusted, socially and emotionally, that they can handle social media a lot better than somebody who’s already showing some signs of anxiety or depression. ...

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You have to look at the person. A lot of times I do talk to parents. ... What I usually say to parents is you really need to look at your child and see, after prolonged use of social media, are they looking sad, are they withdrawn?

There are other young people who will have no trouble with social media because it’s a great way for them to connect with their friends. … they have a good self-image, and they’re not maybe worried as much about themselves on social media because they’re already projecting a very strong image offline.

Why is bullying so rampant on social media?

You can post things and you’re not standing by the person to feel the repercussions of what you’ve posted. I think that’s the number one reason. Second, social media is a 24/7 communication platform. We can think about bullying prior to social media, and that bullying could happen maybe at school, or maybe at practice after school; but now this is something that people cannot escape. At any time of day no matter what you are doing, someone might post something on social media that is hurtful and harmful.

What do you advise parents and teens on how to handle this?

Parents (need) to talk to the children, and they should not only talk to them about whether they feel like the victim of a cyber bully, but they should also talk to them about how to avoid being a cyber bully themselves. Sometimes with social media, content that is posted… and, can be misconstrued in some way. So maybe… you’re joking with your friends too much and people are taking it seriously. I would say you also talk to the children… on how to be supportive of a friend who is being cyber bullied. Young people should stand up for their friends and not just “pile on,” or not say anything in support of their friends. … The best thing you can do is just talk to your children and then report cyber-bullying to the school, because often if it’s happening online, it’s likely to be happening offline as well.

You talked in a past interview about sophisticated algorithms that keep us scrolling and “away from real life.”

One thing that happens, especially with young people, is that there is a lot of damaging content that’s on social media sites. The more they are “liking” that content, whether it’s about anorexia or other what we would call maladjusted behaviors… (for example) anorexia or cutting or substance abuse, you could get into what we call an echo chamber where, if you start “liking” this content, that’s the content you’re going to see in your feed. It’s certainly a problem that social media platforms will deliver this content to you based on your liking it in the past. ...

This isn’t something that just impacts young people. This is something that we’ve seen in political elections as well. These sites have you “pegged” as being in a certain place on the political spectrum. Once they have identified where you are on the spectrum, they will deliver content that is supportive of the candidate or the position that you hold. So, you do start to get into an echo chamber, where you’re only seeing pro (support for) your candidate. (You may also see against) anti the other candidate, and you become more and more convinced that, oh, isn’t this reality? But it’s only because the platform is serving you content that you’re already supportive of, and not showing you a more balanced view of the issues.