Social Media Privacy: Sharing Intimate Information on Social Networking Sites

Social Networking and Information Sharing Introduction

Social Networking Sites (SNS) have become a prime source of information sharing and gathering for individuals since the advent social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And while these sites maintain an end user licensing agreement (EULA) prohibiting specific content, it is up to the end user to moderate and report content deemed inappropriate. In most cases, such content is either left unreported or deemed not in violation of the EULA.

Since most of the content shared online is self-moderated and it is believed that individuals are generally more protective of the information they share (Livingstone, 2008; Zemmels & Khey, 2015), much research has been done to corroborate the idea that individuals are more inclined to limit their private information to a select group of individuals (Choi & Bazarova, 2015). There is a lack of research concerning openly exposing intimate information without regard to privacy concerns, and the trend of open sharing seems to be increasing on SNS.

Theories Referenced

The articles referenced for this review of literature focused mainly around three communication theories, Identity Management theory (IMT) by Tadasu Todd Imahori and William R. Cupach (Gudykunst, 2005), Social Penetration theory (SPT) (Altman & Taylor, 1973), and Communication Privacy Management theory (Petronio, 2002).

Understanding that most computer-mediated communication revolves around privacy management and identity management, it was important to look at the idea of self-disclosure introduced in SPT (Altman & Taylor, 1973) in order to develop the idea that individuals are more willing to share intimate information to increase their social status online. As an aside, the focus of SPT within this review of literature, self-disclosure, held that such disclosure occurred during face-to-face communication (Altman & Taylor, 1973). It can now be surmised that with the technological advances achieved, self-disclosure is an integral dynamic of the computer-mediated communication paradigm and ideas within SPT maintain their relevancy.

Correlating ideas in IMT was important to show that individuals still maintained some limitation with regard to self-disclosure. While SPT was indicative of self-disclosure, IMT was indicative of the personification of an individual within a virtually anonymous space. According to Imahori and Cupach, in order for an individual to maintain communication competence, one must successfully negotiate mutually acceptable identities within an interaction (Gudykunst, 2005). The article reviewed how individuals navigate SNS utilizing their online personas and the challenges they face separating their real life persona from their online persona.

Finally, it is important to realize even though individuals choose to reveal intimate or sexually explicit information online, they also choose to retain some information privately, possibly as a way to maintain some integrity of self. Communication Privacy Management theory, helps us to understand how individuals retain some information in order to maintain some control over their information (Petronio, 2002). In essence, while one may seem to be totally exposed during an interaction, Petronio theorizes that an individual still retains some sense of self by retaining some information, which is supported by articles reviewed (Choi & Bazarova, 2015; Petronio, 2002).

Identity Management

Identity management is an important factor for sharing information, and because of this, individuals tend to create online personas to maintain a sense of anonymity. According to Barbara Carminati, Elena Ferrari, and Marco Viviani, when one chooses to protect their identity, they may decide to create an online persona to represent an identity other than their own, an indication that they may have self-esteem issues (Carminati, Ferrari, & Viviani, 2013).

An online persona may be a tool to maintain anonymity on SNS, and thus can present challenges for individuals who maintain large social networks online and in person, and because of managing multiple identities, this can affect an individual’s self identity (Carminati et al., 2013). Research has shown that individuals tended to indicate that their Facebook profiles were an extension of their identity and they found it difficult to separate their digital life from their real life (Jordán-Conde, Mennecke, & Townsend, 2014).

New Technologies and Privacy

New technologies play an important role in privacy management. Technologies used to score users reputation or use have a tendency to boost user participation, thus causing an increase in identity disclosure by individuals (Carminati et al., 2013). Because of this, individuals may be more willing to forego security concerns and may be more willing to share private information (Stefanone, Lackaff, & Rosen, 2011). Also, raising self-worth seems to be an important factor in SNS. It is shown that young women tend to want to maintain or raise their status on their SNS, and because of this, they consider using sexual imagery online (Nikunen, 2015).

SNS tools to manage privacy also play an integral role in the sharing of information. There are settings to allow for a varying degree of self-disclosure by allowing users to manage their privacy settings depending on their own set of privacy boundaries (Choi & Bazarova, 2015; Petronio, 2002). But, according to Choi and Bazarova, privacy concerns do not always translate into more cautious behavior on SNS, thus lending to the idea that individuals are more willing to share intimate information with little concern for their privacy boundaries (Choi & Bazarova, 2015). Also, technologies have afforded individuals the ability to create, distribute, and store images. This technology gives the end user a false sense of security of what they intend to share and intend to be for a private audience will remain private (Zemmels & Khey, 2015).

Finally, it is shown that teenagers are less concerned with strangers viewing private information they share online, however, they are more concerned with what information their parents can view (Livingstone, 2008). The information they share is important to maintain a certain social standing, however, the same information may not be appropriate according to their parents standards.

Online Intimacy

Online intimacy is an aspect of SNS that is changing how individuals view intimacy in general. According to Kaarina Nikunen, sharing sexually suggestive images and videos online is redefining what was once considered eccentric into something that is considered the norm (Nikunen, 2015). Also, since social networking is a vastly different form of communication, individuals have the ability to readily share information without limitations to the construct, that is, they can share what they want without having to filter their content if they choose (Petronio, 2002; Zingale, 2013). And though sexual intimacy online is hedging towards social normality, the tendency is for individuals to resist changes in the online intimacy paradigm (Nikunen, 2015), but with more publicity, especially on SNS, online sexual activities could become more liberated and more readily available (Döring, 2009).

Other factors lead to the more intimate information being shared online. The ease and affordability of technology and online networks allow for individuals to share intimate content more readily, allowing for a change in the paradigm of traditional intimacy. Also, apps such as Snapchat allow for the temporary sharing of intimate information, giving individuals a level of privacy, they believe is adequate.

Technology breakthroughs in higher quality webcams and smartphones, and faster Internet connections allow individuals to share better quality content at a faster rate. Because of the availability of these higher quality webcams, the sexual and emotional aspects of private intimacy are increasingly being share though online networks (Nikunen, 2015). Since individuals are more apt to manage their online identity, the anonymity on SNS allows them to act out sexual behaviors that would likely be held private in real world situations even if the guise of anonymity were compromised (Döring, 2009).

While individuals may use SNS such as Facebook to interact intimately, the nature of SNS, specifically Facebook, indicate that relationships cannot be sustained (Park, Jin, & Annie Jin, 2011). According to Livingstone, even though online intimate relationships may not be sustained, teenagers using SNS are more willing to share information in order to maintain intimacy and online relationships, at the same time maintaining control over what they share, when to share it, and with whom to share it (Livingstone, 2008; Petronio, 2002).

Better quality mobile phones also promote the dissemination of explicit content over SNS. Sharing content to SNS though mobile phones is deemed more trustworthy than through traditional computers, individuals are more willing to share sexual content via mobile phones, even though the recipient of the content may not been the intended recipient (Zemmels & Khey, 2015).

Limitations to Online Sharing

As technology advances and, in certain online situations, privacy is still an issue of concern with some individuals, such individuals may limit their online practices. Also even though technology is making advances to unprecedented degrees, technology retains some limitations, which cannot be overcome.

Because of the public nature of SNS, individuals, specifically teenagers, are making thoughtful decisions to limit the type of and amount of intimate information they share online (Livingstone, 2008). While primarily limiting information to prevent what their parents see (Livingstone, 2008), teenagers negotiate the SNS to maintain normal relationships with their peers.

Also, individuals with smaller social networks and weaker intimate relationships are more inclined to limit the information shared and less inclined to utilize technologies that will increase their social standings as opposed to those with larger social networks and strong intimate relationships (Stefanone et al., 2011). Finally even with all the technological advances being made, sharing intimate information online cannot replace human interaction and intimacy in person (Zingale, 2013).


While there is current research that shows how individuals are more reluctant to share private or intimate information on SNS, there is also new research to show that individuals are less concerned with privacy and are more willing to share intimate information (Carminati et al., 2013; Nikunen, 2015). Other research has shown that teenagers, specifically, are less reluctant to protect private information in order to maintain a high social status, however, will protect specific information in order to prevent their parents from viewing it (Livingstone, 2008).

Finally, some researchers believe that with the advent of new technologies and blasé attitudes towards privacy, the paradigm of online sexual encounters is now becoming the norm rather than the exception (Nikunen, 2015; Zingale, 2013). Because of the limited amount of research available regarding this, it may be too early to make such an assessment.



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