In addition to all its obvious benefits in terms of cat pictures, more and more research suggests that social media has some substantial drawbacks including negative social and psychological impacts. The latest such study was performed by two Italian academics, whose research, described in a paper titled “Online Networks and Subjective Well-Being” and published on arXiv, focused on measures of “social trust.”
“Social trust” refers to the individual’s tendency to assume – or not assume – that strangers, as proxies for society in general, are benign and trustworthy, in the sense that they will “observe the rules of the game” in basic social interactions by being polite and so on.
The authors note that previous studies have shown social trust to be closely related to individual happiness. But a number of characteristics of social media threaten to undermine social trust. For example, they observe, “Internet-mediated interaction often violates well-established face-to-face social norms for the polite expression of opposing views. In online discussions with unknown others, individuals more easily indulge in aggressive and disrespectful behaviors… In online interactions, dealing with strangers who advance opposite views in an aggressive and insulting way seems to be a widespread practice, whatever the topic of discussion is.”
This potential conflict led them to hypothesize that “when unknown others violate interpersonal social norms and behave aggressively and offensively in online environments, people react as they would if those aggressions and offenses were perpetrated in real life. We argue that this mechanism may cause anxiety, distress, and deterioration in trust towards unknown others.”
To test this hypothesis, the researchers analyzed government data on 24,000 Italian households, with about 50,000 individuals, including their use of online social networks, general feelings of emotional wellbeing, and attitudes towards strangers. Controlling for factors including economic and marital status, employment, and Internet access, they found a “significantly negative correlation between online networking and subjective well-being,” attributing it in part to “unfriendly Internet-mediated communication with strangers,” which results in the “destruction of social trust.”
Another factor undermining social trust, the authors speculate, is the way social media reveals that the individual’s own beliefs aren’t shared as widely as they believed; thus “People who previously felt part of a majority may discover to be surrounded with preference types they dislike (e.g. a racist person may find out that most people appreciate ethnic diversity, or vice versa), and this might lead to a revision of individuals’ beliefs about the trustworthiness of others.”
This echoes some recent findings from Pew, which found that social media users are less likely to share opinions on controversial topics in both online and “real life” settings. This appears to be part of a phenomenon Pew describes as the “spiral of silence,” in which people are less likely to talk about controversial issues unless they already know that their audience agrees.
Pew researchers speculated that frequent social media use may make people more sensitive to divergent opinions among their peers, in both online and offline contexts. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project, stated: “Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts. This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend.”