As online social networking grows in popularity, the number of users placing personal information online does as well. Previous studies have shown that undergraduates and medical students put high levels of personal information online, including inappropriate or unprofessional information, which can be easily accessed by anyone. This study focused on an undergraduate psychology major population and assessed how many of them were using Facebook, how much personal information was made publicly available, and how much of that information was questionable in nature. Major findings include the majority of students 1) use Facebook, 2) have a publicly accessible account, and 3) a sizable minority have content of a questionable nature on their publicly viewable accounts.
It is relatively for individuals to develop an online presence for no or low cost, either through social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, or Bebo or Web hosting entities such as Google. Hence, it is important to help students understand how to use such resources responsibly. With over 200 million registered users (Facebook, 2009), Facebook is one of the most widely used social networking sites; little research has been conducted on how students use Facebook and what type of information they reveal.
Previous research on the use of Facebook by undergraduate education majors (Coutts, et al., 2007) and medical students and residents (Ferdig, et al., 2008; Thompson, et al., 2008) found high rates of disclosure of personal information as well as unprofessional use. This study was undertaken to examine how undergraduate psychology majors use Facebook, examining publicly disclosed information.
Hypotheses for the study were that a) the majority of students would have a Facebook account; b) most students with an account would not restrict access to it; and, c) a minority of students would have content of a questionable or possibly negative nature.
Prior to the start of the study, the Arkansas Tech University (ATU) Human Subjects Committee reviewed and gave approval to the study. Facebook, unlike other social network sites, requires users to give their first and last name, allowing searching by those parameters. In addition, profiles not made private on purpose are by default open to viewing by other members of your network, such as a college or university.
This study first obtained the names of all undergraduate psychology majors at ATU (n = 199) from publicly available lists of majors. Study authors (L.B. and D.H.) used personally created Facebook registrations under their ATU e–mail addresses, automatically enrolling them in the ATU network. They then searched for the participants’ profiles by first and last name, or e–mail address if the first search returned no results. It was then determined whether the profile was “public” or “private”, a setting that limits the amount of information available to be viewed at the owner’s discretion. For public profiles, the following personal information, when applicable, was collected, including hometown, street address, phone number, the presence of a profile photo, e–mail address, and an instant messenger address. Other information included sexual orientation, relationship status, birthday, field of study, and religious and political views. The number of “friends” each participant had, meaning the number of people that they allowed into their personal network, the number of photo albums they had, and the number of social groups they joined were also collected.
Finally, those participants with publicly available profiles were then examined more qualitatively. Information on the presence of unprofessional material, subjectively defined, was then gathered from each profile. The categories for unprofessional material were display of alcohol or drug use, highly sexualized dress, or overt sexuality, and use of foul language.
Use of social networking
Of the 199 undergraduate psychology majors, 62.3 percent (n = 124) had existing Facebook accounts at the time of the data collection. Of those, 73.4 percent (n = 91) had open profiles that were available for viewing by any member of their particular network (in this case, the Arkansas Tech network). All further information presented below was gathered only on those 91 students with open profiles (see Table 1). Of the public profiles, they were split relatively evenly between males (54.9 percent) and females (45.1 percent).
Table 1: Descriptive information obtained from public Facebook profiles. Personal information revealed Total
(n = 91)
(n = 41)
(n = 50)
Birthday 95.6% 97.6% 94.0% Hometown 70.3% 61.0% 78.0% Relationship status 79.1% 82.9% 76.0% Political views 59.3% 48.8% 68.0% Religious views 54.9% 51.2% 58.0% Sexual orientation 76.9% 68.3% 84.0% Personal photograph 92.3% 90.2% 94.0% Field of study 48.4% 43.9% 52.0% Home address 15.4% 9.8% 20.0% E–mail address 60.4% 53.7% 66.0% IM address 17.6% 24.4% 12.0% Mean number of friends
Mean number of photo albums
Mean number of social groups
To examine possible gender differences relative to personal information, a series of one–way ANOVAs were conducted. No statistically significant differences were found for any variables of interest, although exposure of political views (ρ = .064) and sexual orientation (ρ = .078) approached significance. There was a significant difference in the number of photo albums between males and females, but when the outliers were deleted, no difference was found.
Each student with a publicly accessible profile on Facebook (n = 91) was a participant in qualitative analyses. Profiles were examined in depth for content that could be viewed negatively, either by future employers, clients, or graduate schools. References to alcohol or drug use, displays of risqué dress or overt sexuality, and use of foul language were all examined. Of the entire group, 10 students changed their profiles to private between the collection of quantitative and qualitative data, leaving a toal sample of 81 students. Of those, 22 (27.2 percent) had questionable content displayed on their profiles (see Table 2).
Table 2: Presence of questionable content on public Facebook profiles. Questionable content type Percentage
(n = 81)
Alcohol use 14.8 Drug use 2.4 Risqué dress 3.7 Overt sexuality 6.2 Foul language 18.5
Today’s undergraduate student has more opportunity to reveal personal information to large numbers of individuals than ever before, thanks to the Internet. This research found that large numbers of students use the social networking site Facebook, and that a great percentage make their profiles publicly available, with the resultant reveal of personal information that entails. Both genders appear to disclose personal information at equal rates, with a large amount of information revealed by the average student.
Given the sheer number of students using such sites, and the fact that many of them choose to provide personal information publicly, it is not surprising that some would have questionable or potentially offensive content on their profiles. However, these students appear to be in the minority, with the use of foul language and alcohol use only appearing on less than 20 percent of profiles.
There is a need for formal education for undergraduate students on the use social networking sites. Instructors could use these sites to connect with students in innovative ways in order to teach concepts of professionalism and related issues.
About the authors
Caleb W. Lack, Ph.D. (www.caleblack.com), is a licensed clinical psychologist and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma. A specialist in cognitive–behavioral therapy, he completed a predoctoral internship and the University of Florida and earned his doctorate from Oklahoma State University in 2006. He is the author of over a dozen scientific articles relating to the assessment and treatment of Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s Disorder and a recently released book on children’s reactions to tornadoes (Tornadoes, children, and posttraumatic stress Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008). He has presented papers across the nation and internationally on a variety of topics, including reactions to natural disasters, innovative teaching methods, and evidence–based psychological practice. Clinically, he specializes in the treatment of children with anxiety disorders, including OCD and phobias, and chronic tics and Tourette’s Disorder.
Lisa Beck, B.A. is a first–year graduate student at Mississippi State University, where she is studying forensic psychology.
Danielle Hoover is a junior psychology major at Arkansas Tech University, and plans on going to graduate school to study clinical psychology.
J. Coutts, K. Dawson, J. Boyer, and R. Ferdig, 2007. “Will you be my friend? Prospective teachers’ use of Facebook and implications for teacher education,” In: Roger Carlsen and Dee Anna Willis (editors). Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2007 (26 –30 March, San Antonio). Chesapeake, Va.: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, pp. 1,937–1,941.
Facebook, 2009. “Facebook factsheet,” at http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics.
R. Ferdig, K. Dawson, E. Black, N. Black, and L. Thompson, 2008. “Medical students’ and residents’ use of online social networking tools: Implications for teaching professionalism in medical education,” First Monday, volume 13, number 9, at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2161/2026.http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v13i9.2161
L. Thompson, K. Dawson, R. Ferdig, E. Black, J. Boyer, and J. Coutts, 2008. “The intersection of online social networking with medical professionalism.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, volume 23, number 7, pp. 954–957.http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11606-008-0538-8
Paper received 29 May 2009; accepted 6 December 2009.
“Use of social networking by undergraduate psychology majors” by Caleb W. Lack, Lisa Beck, and Danielle Hoover is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Use of social networking by undergraduate psychology majors
by Caleb W. Lack, Lisa Beck, and Danielle Hoover.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 12 - 7 December 2009