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The High Cost of Facebook Exhibitionism

Over-sharing on Facebook can really mess up your career and your relationships

The Facebook world of privacy settings is a moving target. It’s an endless challenge to stay one step ahead of the game and make sure that your postings, photos, videos, and liked pages are visible only to those you consider your true circle of friends. However, given the complexity of this ever-shifting online world, the chances are good that you’ll slip up at least once, if not more. With luck, your Facebook slip will be a minor one, but the chances are also good that it can land you into a heap of trouble. Facebook exhibitionism in which you over-share your most personal photos and updates, can cost you plenty.

People of different ages seem to use Facebook to accomplish different goals, as shown in one international online study (McAndrew & Jeong, 2012). To no one’s surprise, the most active users were found to be young-ish, female, and single. They spend more time than other users updating their status, and use the photos they post to shape the impressions that they want others to have of them. Older users tend to be more involved in family-related Facebook activities. In other words, young women want to shape the ways their followers view them, and older users (men and women) want to stay in touch with their families.

It’s in the area of impression management, the one most important to these young women, in which the most acute Facebook problems can occur. According to University of Southern Indiana psychologist Joy Peluchette, who teamed up with Marshall University’s Katherine Karl (2010), as many as 40% of Facebook users include comments regarding their use of alcohol, over half post photos in which they are shown drinking, one-fifth make comments about sexual activities, one-quarter post seminude or sexually provocative photos, and half use profane language. It’s not unheard of for women to photograph their cleavage or their backsides in various stages of undress, from tiny tees to bikinis to short, short, shorts. Men and women take videos of themselves playing late-night drinking games or attending huge parties or concerts that are clearly getting out of control. Working adults may also litter their Facebook profiles with incriminating evidence. Peluchette and Karl reported that Facebook users also make derogatory comments about their employers (25% of those sampled), other people, and use racial slurs (10%).

In their article entitled “What Were They Thinking?,” Peluchette and Karl explored the reasons for what they deemed this reckless activity, coming up with rather surprising results. People who post the most extreme tell-all Facebook photos and updates actually do so on purpose. It’s not as if they forget to change their security settings or even have their photos updated by other people. They actually think they will look more popular, cool, and attractive if they reveal their wild, partying sides. And it’s not just women, as men too were likely to include their share of Animal House images. Facebook users varied, however, in the images they wanted to portray as revealed in this study; plenty of the students that responded to the survey wanted to project a clean and wholesome persona to the outside world.

So we now know that at least some, perhaps even as many as half, of the big reveals on Facebook are deliberate attempts to project what the users believe to be a positive image to the outside world, or at least the world of their social network. Unfortunately, though they think that their postings aren't visible to non-friends, their postings may not be as protected as they think. If they fail to do their privacy settings properly, people who are not friends with them on Facebook may still be able to see at least some photos. However, even if they’ve fastidiously checked every single privacy setting imaginable, a potential employer may still be able to discover their indiscretions with some creative online sleuthing. The image they’ve worked so hard to create to build their friendship base is precisely the one that will lose them their job, or the prospect of a job, or prevent them from being accepted at the school or program of their choice.

According to a paper published by Brown and Vaughn (2011), hiring managers are increasingly utilizing sites such as Facebook and Twitter as part of their screening and selection process. Citing a study by CareerBuilder.dom, they note that between 2008 and 2009, the percent of companies scrutinizing social media doubled from 22 to 45%. Companies may also be using social networking sites to terminate individuals, according to Davison and colleagues (2011). Employees don’t even have to show themselves in compromising positions to receive the condemnation of their bosses. Complaining about your job on Twitter (where people are even more findable than Facebook) can cost you that job in very short order.

People may make similar mistakes in their personal lives. Using Facebook to seek revenge against a romantic partner will cause you to look less desirable to future partners in your friendship networks. Photos that put you in compromising positions can cause your friends and your friends of friends to avoid you for fear of being associated with you in status updates that they can’t control. Facebook indiscretions can also ripple out to people in your extended family and community, leading if not to uncomfortable moments at family gatherings, then to actual rifts between those family members who defend you and those who are outraged at your online presence.

Those privacy settings are also much more easily outsmarted than you might realize. Google’s efficiency as a search engine extends well into social media sites. Even if all of your updates are hidden from general view, there may be just one photo, perhaps somewhere in your long-ago profile, that sits there like a time bomb, waiting to be found by inquisitive and web savvy employers. The more distinctive your name, the greater the likelihood that people can find you through Google or other search engines. Because Facebook timelines extend farther back than many of us remember, and because friends can tag you in their photos, all it takes is one toga party to label you as a potentially unsavory employee.

Every time you post an update to Facebook, think very hard about the image you’re communicating and whether this is the image that will get you closer to achieving your life goals. You might also question your own motives. Ask yourself why you feel this need to share, or perhaps over-share, the details of your personal life. Are you trying to seek attention, approval, or acceptance? And are the people whose attention you seek really the people who care about you and your well-being? Those friends and family who value you for your inner qualities won’t be impressed at all by your online shenanigans and there’s a more than even chance that they’ll be put off by your lack of judgment in baring your soul, if not your body, for the whole wide world to see.

You might also ask yourself whether there’s someone you’re trying to get back at by showing how happy and popular you are and how you’ve rebounded from a breakup. A more mature, and less self-defeating, way to deal with these hurt feelings is to confront them within yourself. If possible, talk directly to the person for whom you’re putting on the online display.

Whether they are entitled to do so or not, employers and educational institutions are peering into your online presence to find out if you’re a reliable, honest, and stable person. The more room you give them to question these qualities, the less likely the chances that you’ll get to show how great you are in person.

As you’ve perhaps heard many times, never post anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. However, grandmothers tend to be more forgiving than bosses. You’ll avoid the worst mistakes and benefit the most when you use Facebook as a tool to keep, and build, your online support network.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Brown, V. R., & Vaughn, E. (2011). The writing on the (Facebook) wall: The use of social networking sites in hiring decisions. Journal of Business And Psychology, 26(2), 219-225. doi:10.1007/s10869-011-9221-x

McAndrew, F. T., & Jeong, H. (2012). Who does what on Facebook? Age, sex, and relationship status as predictors of Facebook use. Computers In Human Behavior, 28(6), 2359-2365. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.07.007

Peluchette, J., & Karl, K. (2010). Examining students' intended image on Facebook: 'What were they thinking?!'. Journal Of Education For Business, 85(1), 30-37. doi:10.1080/08832320903217606

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