How Honest Are People on Social Media?

Social media sites can be breeding grounds for dishonesty.

Posted Jul 30, 2018

Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Tinder. Match.com.

The world is consuming and interacting with social media at increasingly high rates. According to 2018 data from the Pew Institute[CF1] , the majority of U.S. adults now use YouTube (73%) or Facebook (68%); of those who use Facebook, more than half check this platform several times a day. 

As we engage on social media with greater frequency, we find ourselves sifting through photos of children, commentary about food, and explosive reactions to current political events. This increased media usage and exposure poses the question: How accurate is the information we are getting? More specifically, how honest are people on social media sites? 

Honesty and Lying on Social Media

The truth is that people tend to lie on these platforms. How? First, people directly lie about their lives, which is often an effort to make themselves look more desirable or positive. In a study examining 80 online daters, Hancock, Toma, & Ellison (2007[CF2] ) found that 2/3 of participants lied about their weight by 5 pounds or more. In a large sample of over 2000 people in England conducted by Custard.com[CF3] (2016), 43% of men admitted to making up facts about themselves and their lives that were not true online.

Even more commonly, people "lie" by presenting an image of themselves and their lives that is imprecise or less than comprehensive, leading the viewer to believe falsehoods. For example, in the Custard.com[CF4] study, only 18% of men and 19% of women reported that their Facebook page displayed “a completely accurate reflection” of who they are. Most commonly, participants said that they only shared “non-boring” aspects of their lives (32%) and were not as “active” as their social media accounts appeared (14%). 

How and Why does Dishonesty on Social Media Effect us?

Although selective self-presentation and lying about ourselves on social media may not seem like a surprise (or even a big deal), it can affect us greatly. Why? Humans are naturally social creatures—we crave relationships and social interaction. According to some of the most prominent theories of human nature (e.g., Adlerian psychotherapy) and a large body of research, social interaction and feeling a sense of belonging to a community are two of the most important predictors of psychological and physical health (see here for a review[CF5] ). Given our social nature, we want to feel connected to people and “in the know” about our friends, family, and even celebrities. 

In addition to being social, we appear to have a natural propensity to trust that others are being honest with us. A large body of research suggests that we are programmed to trust others[CF6] . Although the reasons for our tendency to trust are complex, without interpersonal connectedness and a fundamental belief that those around will support you, protect you, and treat you respectfully, we feel unsafe. In essence, trust is developmentally essential to our feelings of safety and security.

When we engage on social media and our propensity to trust is met with overt lying and less than honest presentations it can be problematic because we internally presume that what is presented is true. That people are naturally as good-looking as their photos appear on a daily basis. That people’s daily home life is as perfect as the pictures depict. That others have very few gut-wrenching struggles. That people around us are in a habitual state of going on vacation, eating out, and parenting blissfully. This is clearly not true. And although we are less aware of the realities of other peoples' lives, we are well aware of the ways in which our own lives are NOT ideal.

Social Comparison in Social Media

To make matters more complicated, when we internally believe that what we see in social media is true and relevant to us, we are more likely to compare ourselves to it in an internal effort to evaluate ourselves against those around us (e.g., regarding our looks, wealth, significant other, family, etc.). As we do this against the idealized images and unreasonably positive life accounts that tend to permeate social media, we are likely to feel more poorly about ourselves and our lives. 

Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that social media use can negatively affect your psychological health, particularly if you compare yourself to the positive images you see online. In a study of 339 college women (Puglia, 2017), the tendency to compare oneself to others was associated with poorer body esteem. Furthermore, in a subsample of 58 women in the Puglia study, those with higher levels of Facebook usage displayed lower body satisfaction than those with lower Facebook usage[CF7] . Similarly, in an experimental study by Vogel and colleagues (2015[CF8] ), participants who tended to compare themselves to others more regularly had lower self-esteem, more negative emotions, and a poorer view of themselves after using Facebook than participants who did not tend to compare themselves to others. 

The Naked Truth is This: Most of us now use some form of social media. Research suggests that what people post on social media is not an accurate representation of their lives or who they are. In fact, it may be blatant lies. Consequently, when engaging with social media, it is critical to remind yourself that what you see is not an accurate picture of reality. Don't compare yourself to the images of friends, colleagues, or celebrities. Remind yourself that it is just a snapshot of their life—and one that they want you to see.  

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

References

REFERENCES

 [CF1]http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/

 [CF2]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221515634_The_truth_about_lying_in_online_dating_profiles

 [CF3]https://www.custard.co.uk/over-three-quarters-of-brits-say-their-social-media-page-is-a-lie/

 [CF4]https://www.custard.co.uk/over-three-quarters-of-brits-say-their-social-media-page-is-a-lie/

 [CF5]for example, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729718/).

 [CF6]https://hbr.org/2009/06/rethinking-trust

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/629b/f1f076f8d5bc203c573d4ba1dad5bb6743cf.pdf

 [CF7]https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:82b9b151-0a47-433e-af1f-ad49c44d7406

 [CF8]“…“to others before using Facebook?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886915004079