Research News

Online “Turbulence”: Who Experiences the Bumpiest Ride?

IPR associate Eszter Hargittai studies how personal information spreads on the Web


young computer user
Who is more likely to experience Internet "turbulence" after sharing personal information online?

In a world where social network sites allow us to share information with hundreds of people in mere seconds, it is not surprising that some Internet users experience “turbulence”—times when their personal information is distributed beyond their desired or intended social circles with negative consequences. But just who is more likely to encounter such online turbulence?

In a recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior, communications studies researcher and IPR associate Eszter Hargittai and Northwestern doctoral student Eden Litt unravel Internet-use data from a survey of 547 young adults.

Asking about several “privacy-enhancing” behaviors, the researchers sought to determine if students knew how, for example, to “untag” themselves from content posted by another and about online “self-monitoring,” which involves using context and social cues to tailor online presentation. Students also answered questions about their own Internet skills, as measured by how well they knew 27 Internet-related terms (such as “bookmark” and “cache”). Turbulence was measured by asking participants about “any negative experiences” or consequences resulting from online content that they or someone else had shared about them.

Eszter Hargittai
Eszter Hargittai

More than one-third of survey respondents had experienced some form of online turbulence (content online made them embarrassed, caused a fight, ended a friendship, etc.) according to Hargittai and Litt’s findings. There was no relationship between a person’s gender, or socioeconomic status and whether they experienced turbulence.

The finding that those who were more Internet savvy were less likely to experience turbulence is relevant.

“It offers a potential point of intervention,” Hargittai noted. “If people were more-informed Internet users and understood the systems that they use better, then maybe they would be less likely to encounter such outcomes.”

One counterintuitive result of the survey—students who used more privacy-enhancing and self-monitoring behaviors were actually more likely to encounter online turbulence. Hargittai and Litt offer several reasons for this puzzling phenomenon, among them: “Those who are high self-monitors are more attuned to the fact that there might be negative consequences” to sharing information online. “So, in fact, it may just be that they’re more likely to see [turbulence],” Hargittai explained.

So should Internet users eschew offering up their personal information in cyberspace altogether? No, Hargittai says. Rather, she encourages people to “think about the content we share online as completely public, even if we’re not putting it up in a public forum. If you’re not willing to stand up to a comment in a more public forum, it’s probably best not to make the comment online.”

Eszter Hargittai is April McClain-Delaney and John Delaney Research Professor in Communication Studies and an IPR associate.