Commentary

Regulator: Social Media Can Inflict Psych Damage

A growing number of studies suggest that social media use is correlated with some negative psychological impacts -- not universally, but with enough frequency to warrant caution. There is also the entirely understandable fear of surveillance and invasion of privacy; combine these factors, and you get a rather unsettling psychological brew.

That’s the conclusion of a report from the European Network and Information Security Agency, an official cybersecurity organization established by the European Commission to “secure Europe’s information society.”

ENISA warns that frequent social network use, described as “life-logging,” can result in negative impacts, including “threats to privacy, loss of personal data control, harm to your reputation and the possibility of psychological damage from exclusion or the feeling of constant surveillance.”

With that last impact, ENISA addresses the phenomenon of self-surveillance, which admittedly existed before social media (calling Michel Foucault) but has been facilitated and encouraged by the new technology.

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Here the ENISA report notes: “Before the 20th century, life-logging was restricted to recordings on paper media and involved written accounts, such as books, diaries, or collections of letters between people as well as person-constructed images, such as drawings or paintings. … By the end of the 20th century, most of these life-log data were digitally recorded with both the resolution and frequency of recording dramatically increasing year on year.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the life-logging phenomenon is that it is entirely voluntary, despite the potential for damaging outcomes. There is certainly a compromise or trade-off involved when the individual embraces social media. On the one hand, it’s creepy to imagine every detail of your life being available to prying eyes on the Internet, regardless of privacy settings. On the other, it’s you who put the information there (and naively trusted those privacy settings to actually work).

The ramifications of privacy breaches are wider than just individual exposure. ENISA also warns: “For commercial organizations, there is the risk of breaching data protection laws, resulting in legal sanctions and irreversible damage to reputation. Governments may suffer losses of public confidence if they are perceived not to be properly protecting their citizens' personal information.”

Of course, there are also many benefits from life-logging and social network use in general, as ENISA acknowledged: “Life-logging can bring families and friends closer and for a longer period of time, thus reducing individuals’ sense of isolationand enhancing the building of social bondsamong people and enhance communication. Individuals can also … benefit professionally by building their reputation online, e.g. getting a better job.”

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