Privacy, Digital Media, and Pathological Togetherness

The psychological effects of disregarding digital privacy.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

The need for social contact has featured large in the writing of many psychologists. It has been suggested that lack of social contact can be devastating for an individual’s physical and mental health, and even that we, as humans, cannot help but form social relationships because our brains are ‘wired’ that way. It is certainly true that, if an individual does not receive the social contact that they wanted, then the resulting loneliness can bring absolute misery—this phenomenon is a scourge in many societies. Yet this is not quite the same as saying a lack of social contact can be devastating—the key word here is ‘wanted.' Nevertheless, the presumed need for social contact has been a selling point for many social media companies, implicitly claiming to provide a service that will meet this need, and fulfil this basic human function. The problem is that it is not necessarily so, and the negative effects of the converse—a lack of privacy—are often not considered in a psychological context.

There are many learned articles, and even legal statutes, about preserving individuals’ rights to privacy concerning their data. There are fewer, of course, about their rights to preserve privacy concerning themselves. Why this should be so is, in itself, an interesting question, and reflects the heightened value placed on security of data, and concerns with data protection, compared to the concerns aired about what happens to the person with a lack of privacy. The latter is surprising, as 50 years ago, or so, the role of dehumanisation in mental institutions was a hot topic, and aspects of that debate centred on the denial of personal privacy. Since then, the topic has drifted from the forefront of psychological research. However, with the advent of mass use of the internet and social media, with its emphases on social networking, capitalising social contacts, and sharing (giving!), perhaps rethinking the role of psychological privacy is needed. Perhaps privacy is just as important to human functioning as social contact—we could even ask why, as we enter an all-encompassing digital age, is research on the importance of social contact now dominant over that on the need for privacy?

A search of the literature reveals that both philosophers and ethologists have been extremely active in pointing out the importance of privacy—exemplified in the work of Mary Midgley1, and George Steiner2. Privacy can be defined in many ways, and Moore3 has provided an excellent overview of this field: “Warren and Brandeis called it ‘the right to be let alone.’ Pound and Freund have defined privacy in terms of an extension of personality or person hood.” In ethological work, privacy is seen as a biological necessity, regulating both external stimulation to the self, and the flow of information given to others4. Sadly, these debates about privacy and psychological functioning have hardly permeated research on digital behaviour.   

In fact, there are many types of privacy3,4, but they tend to fall into two broad categories—‘physical privacy’ and ‘informational privacy.' Both sorts have relevance to the consequences of a lack of privacy for physical and psychological functioning. For example, when rodents are forced into an over-crowded situation, this can produce adrenal dysfunction and reproductive failure4. While there are negative effects of overuse of the internet on physical health, we cannot attribute (at least, not yet) these effects to a lack of privacy from too much social networking. More pertinently for the current purposes of examining lack of privacy associated with social media use are the development of psychopathologies. A good starting point for this discussion is another study of rodents: overcrowded rats develop an inability to feed, except when in the presence of other rats, leading to even worse overcrowding, poorer social conditions, and less social distance—perpetuating the problem. This effect has been termed ‘pathological togetherness’5

The issue is, are we seeing ‘pathological togetherness’ in relation to social media usage, especially in younger users? Several reports are pertinent in this regard—none of which deliver a definitive answer, of course, but several of which highlight concerning features of people’s attitudes towards privacy that leave open the possibility of a ‘pathological togetherness’ in human social media users. 

An indication of a lack of concern (even disregard) for personal privacy can be seen in the literature surrounding ‘the privacy paradox.’People say that they place a high value on the privacy of digitally-held information relating to themselves. However, when their behaviours are examined, especially in relation to the use of privacy-protection safeguards, people disclose massive amounts of personal information without regard for who will see these data. It seems, on the face of it, that the need to share outweighs the need for privacy—at least, online, as the corresponding effect offline is not so easy to document. That this appears to be so, may be a special reason to investigate digital behaviour in this context. There are multiple reasons underlying ‘the privacy paradox’, but some of these seem to point to an effect that cannot be easily explained by the overpowering need for social contact. 

Part of the issue might be that many people, especially younger individuals, are simply not aware that they are leaving a digital trail of their lives6. Another part of the issue is illustrated in a study that found that, while people are concerned about their online privacy, they perceived that the benefits of belonging to a group outweighed the risks of disclosing sensitive data7. Whether this is because they have a ‘biological need’ for social contact, or have a conditioned need to be in a crowd after a period of prolonged ‘digital overcrowding’ is unclear. 

Another contributing factor is termed the ‘third-person effect.’8 Originally studied in relation to TV advertising, it postulates that people think the influence of media is greater on somebody else than on themselves. A recent study9 concerned with social media and internet use found that disregard of personal privacy was higher for those with greater experience of the internet—users who believed they had acquired a strong control over their privacy safeguards, believed others were more susceptible to damaging self-disclosures. Examination of data related to a crowdsourcing service10 also demonstrated a similar differential perception of privacy risks for self and others. The greater the perceived social distance of ‘the other’ from themselves, and the greater the perceived privacy knowledge, the greater were ‘third-person effects’ concerning privacy risks. Both are factors that must be learned, not ‘hard-wired.'

We clearly are vulnerable to a lack of privacy—and our exposure to digital media makes us even more vulnerable. The latter fact suggests that a simple-minded assumption of ‘brain wiring for social contact’ will not explain the need to digitally-overshare. Rather, there remains the possibility of a ‘pathological togetherness’ developing as a result of exposure to too much social networking. Although this cannot be proven, as yet, given the other negative impacts associated with digital usage, this possibility may be worth exploring further. These considerations also suggest much greater attention is needed regarding the psychological, and not just the legal, aspects of violations of privacy in the digital world.

References

1. Midgley, M. (1979). Beast and man. Nature, 281(5730), 336-336.

2. Steiner, G. (1987). George Steiner: a reader. Oxford University Press on Demand.

3. Moore, A.D. (2003). Privacy: its meaning and value. American Philosophical Quarterly, 40(3), 215-227.

4. Klopfer, P.H., & Rubenstein, D.I. (1977).  The concept privacy and its biological basis. Journal of Social Issues, 33(3), 52-65.

5. Calhoun, J.B. (1963). The social use of space.

6. Taddicken, M. (2014). The ‘Privacy Paradox’ in the social web: The impact of privacy concerns, individual characteristics, and the perceived social relevance on different forms of self.

7. Vervier, L., Zeissig, E. M., Lidynia, C., & Ziefle, M. (2017, April). Perceptions of Digital Footprints and the Value of Privacy. In IoTBDS (pp. 80-91).

8. Davison, W.P. (1983).  The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly 47(1): 1–15.

9. Chen, H., & Atkin, D. (2020). Understanding third-person perception about Internet privacy risks. New Media & Society, 1461444820902103.

10. Cho, H., Lee, J-S., & Chung, S (2010). Optimistic bias about online privacy risks: testing the moderating effects of perceived controllability and prior experience. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(5), 987–995.