Online social networking dangers: what are they and how to protect yourself against them

The content of social networks is created by the users themselves, and it is not surprising that there is no fact checking for the content which users receive. “The flow of information on social media is massive, and the content – photos, videos, news – can be very diverse: covering a lot of topics, and forming a certain perception of the world. There is a risk of taking the information for granted, despite the fact that some of it is deceptive or aims to influence us. Anyone has access to social networks, including those who want to cause harm, and the users lack critical judgement in evaluating the reliability, importance and usefulness of information,” – says Jovita Ruzgaitė, graduate of the Faculty of Creative Industries at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU). The research carried out by J. Ruzgaitė focused on understanding what influence does the social media have on opinion forming process among the youth, and tried to evaluate the influence of the social network Facebook. She used a research methodology created in cooperation with the specialists from the Education Development Centre (EDC) under the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania.

One has to learn how to understand social networks

A few interesting trends have been revealed after surveying almost 700 young individuals (14-29 yrs) who use the social network Facebook. The first trend – very high trust in information found on the internet. The research showed that 64% of the respondents use the internet and, especially, social networks as their primary source of information, and only 1% of respondents refer to teachers or lecturers for help. Asking the close family (11%) and friends (9%) is also not common. “There is a clear trend that the youth are looking for information online, but not among their family members. It proves that they trust social networks. In addition, if they are not sure about the reliability of the information, they are not keen to look for the truth or cross check different sources of information,” says Jovita Ruzgaitė about the results of the research.

Another problem – very high trust in influencers. The study found that information from the opinion leaders is potentially harmful for a young person. “It was revealed that the respondents who do not dare to express their opinion publicly, and, on the contrary, withhold it, are more prone to start believing that a position expressed by an opinion leader is more credible. This means, that users of the social network are ready to give up their own thoughts and accept someone else’s standpoint on certain issues. It is no doubt that opinion leaders play an important role in the development of young person’s consciousness,” says VGTU graduate.

The research also proved that there is a link between the frequency of use of the social network and the level of trust in the published information. “The results of the survey showed that Facebook users who use the social network every day or several times a day always trust the information on Facebook: 30% of the respondents and 70% of the respondents respectively. We can draw a conclusion that frequent use of social networks leads to greater quantities of information; thus, the truth can be very hard to discern, and the users unconsciously start believing everything they see,” emphasises J. Ruzgaitė.

The link among three other factors – attentive reading, attention to detail, and less influence on the formation of an opinion – was identified as well. “The survey results showed that respondents are less likely to be affected when certain piece of information is selected from a massive information flow, and it is read attentively with efforts to distinguish between personal opinion of the source and facts. This proves the importance of the development of media and digital literacy,” says author of the research.

How do you navigate the world of social media?

It is not easy for the users enthralled in social media to know whether or not the information is reliable and truthful. The development of media and digital literacy, and critical thinking skills is very important trying to learn how to navigate the world of social media. “Media literacy is the ability to select and assess the information on the social media to avoid the influence and unnecessary information, also it is the ability to create media content, to use the media independently, and understand its role in society,” says J. Ruzgaitė.

Critical thinking is of equal importance. “Social media users who have critical thinking understand that information on social media is not a mirror image of the world, and they do not trust the information blindly and do not accept it as absolutely truthful”. Critical thinking skills are not innate; they have to be developed. Therefore, it is crucial for the youth to learn at school how to understand and choose the right information.

According to the Minister of Education and Science, education on media literacy will be available at all schools by 2020. There are plans to include it in the general education curricula and various lessons. 1000 teachers should receive training on the topic. Meanwhile, Vilnius Salomėja Nėris Gymnasium supports the idea that media literacy should be part of modern process of education, and, in cooperation with VGTU’s Faculty of Creative Industries, from the 1st of September shall open the first media class in Lithuania. Pupils learning in this class will be better prepared to study media in the future. They will gain general competences – communication, understanding and analysis of target audience, getting the message across, development and sales of media products – which are very valuable in the market today.

VGTU graduate who carried out the research suggests considering other alternatives as well: when educating the youth, include interactive teaching methods which teach how to recognise fake news by cross checking information, analysing visuals, posts by opinion leaders etc. This would be an excellent way to develop critical thinking skills, and a step forward towards more literate media users.

“It is important to emphasise that media has influence irrespective of the users’ level of media literacy, but media literacy, critical thinking and the ability to filter the facts prevent us from believing the misleading information and help us focusing on information which does not have negative influence on forming of an opinion,” says J. Ruzgaitė.

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