Over the past 20 years, social media has come to occupy an increasingly central place in American life. Data collected by the Pew Research Center show how social media has grown from a novelty that was used by only 5 percent of Americans in 2005 to a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon today, with 72 percent of us reporting some type of social media usage in 2021.
Whatever it once was, social media has evolved and taken root in nearly every facet of our daily lives, from social networking and e-commerce to information seeking and political engagement.
In a recent survey conducted at the University of South Florida, we examined the growing use of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter among a representative sample of 1,000 American adults. Here’s a little of what we learned about the good, the bad and the ugly of social media.
For all the negative criticism that social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have received in recent years, it’s undeniable that these platforms expand our opportunities to connect with one another and stay informed. For many social media users, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a perfect example of these benefits.
We found that Americans have not only relied heavily on social media during the pandemic, but for many it has provided a needed source of grounding and connectivity. More than two-thirds of respondents to the survey (68 percent) say that they have “relied on social media to stay connected with friends and family during the COVID-19 pandemic.” A similar majority (63 percent) say that they’ve used social media more frequently during the pandemic, while nearly half (49 percent) say that social media has been good for their mental health during this time.
When it comes to news and information seeking, social media also has its clear benefits. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter facilitate the rapid spread of information, allowing content producers to communicate directly with consumers rather than relying on traditional information media as “middle-men.”
Among active Facebook users, we found that over half of respondents (58 percent) rely on social media at least a little to stay informed about news and politics. These findings are consistent with our prior surveys, which have shown social media to be an important source of information on topics such as the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Despite these benefits, social media usage comes with some inherent personal risks. Overfamiliarity and a lack of awareness on the part of some users can result in the unnecessary exposure of personal information and place users at risk of both virtual and physical victimization.
Despite extensive warnings from security experts, we found that many social media users continue to engage in risky behaviors, such as over-sharing and practicing loose security protocols. For example, just under a third of respondents reported sharing photos of their children and grandchildren on social media (31 percent), providing information about their daily routines (30 percent), and holding ongoing conversations with strangers (29 percent) over the past 30 days.
During the same time period, a significant number of users also report having engaged in behaviors that could inadvertently share personal information from their user profiles. These behaviors include completing surveys (23 percent) and quizzes/games (28 percent) that appear in their feeds or using their social media credentials to log into third-party apps and webpages (59 percent).
Law enforcement and security experts warn against these types of behaviors, as they can compromise the personal information of users, and may, in some cases, be used to facilitate more significant types of victimization.
At a societal level, even more significant concerns have been raised over the broad implications of our evolving social media habits. It’s been widely noted in recent years that social media can facilitate the spread of misinformation and contribute to negative social/mental health effects. We also found evidence of these phenomena in our recent survey results.
For example, we found that most Americans don’t trust the information they encounter on social media platforms. Among active Facebook users, half of the survey respondents (58 percent) said that they rely on Facebook at least a little to stay informed about news and politics. However, three-quarters (75 percent) admitted to not being confident in the accuracy of the political information that they encounter on the platform.
These concerns are well warranted, as recent evidence has highlighted the propensity for misinformation to spread unchecked on social networking sites.
We also found that social media can contribute significantly to stress and mental health concerns. For example, nearly a third of adult respondents (32 percent) reported sometimes feeling bad about the way they look when they see what others post on social media. This follows the recent release of data from an internal Facebook study showing that Instagram has been linked to body-image issues among many teenage users.
Additionally, most survey respondents noted that staying connected on social media can be a source of unneeded stress, with over half saying that “keeping up with social media” can be stressful.
While our recent data collection only scratches the surface of social media’s evolving impacts on daily life, the survey results remind us that for most Americans, social media is a mixed bag. While the convenience and connectivity offered by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have inherent value for millions of Americans, they come with significant risks. Users are encouraged to remain vigilant when safeguarding their personal information and avoid overreliance on social media.
Stephen Neely is an associate professor at USF’s School of Public Affairs. Courtney Wilkerson and Zachary Blair-Andrews are students in USF’s Honors College. The USF study was conducted as an online survey using Prodege MR, a leading market research provider. The sample of 1,000 adult social media users was fielded to be representative of the nation’s demographic composition based on region, age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, and political affiliation. The results are reported with a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error +/- 3.1. The survey was sponsored by the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF