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UB research provides guidance for teaching positive, helpful content sharing on social media


Tue, Sep 27th 2022 09:50 am

By the University at Buffalo

Self-image goals are associated with and predict intentions to share self-promoting social media content, and there is some evidence suggesting that compassionate goals can generate helpful, prosocial content sharing on social media, according to the results of a new study from the University at Buffalo.

People want to look good online, and they’ll craft their image in ways that present themselves in the best possible light. And though the motivation to help others might not be immediately present for those with compassionate goals, the research indicates how simple tasks can stimulate users toward prosocial content.

The findings published in the journal Cyberpsychology present opportunities to leverage interpersonal goals in ways that can potentially change real-world sharing behavior on social media.

“Social media literacy programs should integrate these findings in ways that teach children how they can use these platforms to make a positive impact on others by cultivating prosocial motivations,” says Zena Toh, a graduate student of communication in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and the paper’s first author. “Additionally, I’m keen to segue the findings towards understanding who might be more prone to ‘slacktivism,’ the idea of supporting a cause with little commitment, and whether these goals may drive or diminish people’s efforts to actively engage in these social causes.”

Toh says social media is inherently relational at its core, connecting people to various networks. That interpersonal nature drove her to explore whether goals within interpersonal relationships influenced the content people share on social media, a technology that, across several platforms, boasts about 4 billion users, roughly half the world’s population.

“It’s interesting to know how much of our decision-making processes are based on our close relationships,” she says. “As our interactions with others continue to become more digital, it is important to reflect upon why we want to share specific types of content, as well as how these seemingly unimportant posts on social media can impact our relationships.”

For the research, Toh and her co-author, David Lee, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of communication, recruited a representative sample of 327 participants with Instagram accounts. Participants completed online surveys that measured their motivation to construct a positive self-image (self-image goals) and goals that promote the well-being of others (compassionate goals). Toh and Lee found that participants with high self-image goals were more willing to share self-promotional content even at the expense of others; in contrast, those who scored high on compassionate goals were more willing to share prosocial content on social media.

In a follow-up study, the researchers experimentally induced participants to have self-image goals or compassionate goals by asking participants to write about how they can use social media content to enhance their own image or benefit others respectively. The researchers subsequently assessed participants’ intention to share various content on social media. The results showed that participants induced with self-image goals were more willing to share self-promoting content than prosocial content compared with those induced with compassionate goals.

“This design can again be easily tailored into social media literacy teaching,” Toh says. “One way could be to get pupils to keep a diary of how they are using social media, and instructing them to mindfully reflect upon what they are trying to achieve through their content, as well as how their posts could influence the well-being of others.”

Toh says she believes the results can also be generalized beyond Instagram.

“This study focused on individual goals, as opposed to what a platform affords users,” she says. “Nonetheless, I am curious to study how idiosyncrasies of different platforms interact with people’s intentions to share content.”

As social media, in all its forms, continues to assert itself in the communication landscape, an ongoing examination of its nature and the motivations of participants becomes critical.

“So much has been talked about with issues surrounding body image, cyberbullying, and social comparison on these platforms,” Lee says. “I think it’s important to understand why these things happen and try to mitigate these behaviors by targeting the psychological mechanisms responsible.

“This research is a first step in that direction.”

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