The online world – validation and threat

Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Were you one of the many people tweeting at this year’s annual conference? And if so, did you find yourself feeling boosted when someone liked or retweeted your post, or disappointed if they didn’t? Martin Graf, from the University of South Wales, has designed a new ‘validation scale’ to measure online behaviours such as paying ‘likes’ for ’likes’ or accepting unknown friends on Facebook.

This questionnaire was completed online by 344 respondents, together with the Rosenberg Self-Esteem scale and the Big 5 measure of personality traits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he found that lower levels of self-esteem were linked to greater effort to get online validation and more likelihood of people deleting posts or profile pictures that didn’t get the desired response. These validation behaviours also showed negative correlations with personality traits such as conscientiousness, openness and agreeableness. Although we have not yet entered the social media dystopia depicted in one of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episodes (‘Nosedive’), Graf did point out that online validation-seeking behaviour can have consequences on others, citing the example of people who use the dating site Tinder simply to clock up their ‘right swipes’ and with no intention of ever meeting their unsuspecting validators.

I was left wondering if this wasn’t such a bad thing after hearing the follow-up talk from Megan Davis (University of Nottingham). She looked at predictors of adverse outcomes in people who had met through online dating agencies. Davis cited a series of high profile cases in which online dating had led to rape or physical assault; her research asks whether there may be clues in the messages sent in advance of the meet up. Her survey of 791 participants found that while men were more likely to be the target of online scams (22 per cent compared to 12 per cent), women were significantly more likely than men to experience a potentially dangerous face-to-face date after meeting online (46 per cent vs 35 per cent). Gender differences aside, this is a strikingly high percentage. This is despite the fact that many people had spent time investigating their dates-to-be through googling and social media. In fact it turns out that checking someone out like this is virtually no help at all – people who did this were no less likely to experience an adverse event.

But what about the messages? Well, it seems that there are a few fairly obvious warning signs – for example excessive sexual content, or an arrogant or pushy attitude. But other reliable predictors included people who were very self-deprecating and those who said they were only going on a date because they had nothing better to do.

One caveat is that this research was based on people’s memories of the messages rather than analysing the text itself. Nevertheless, it offers some hope that there may in future be ways to prevent some of these very dangerous liaisons.

And in case you were wondering… Martin Graf got 41 likes for the picture he posted on Facebook of him next to his slides. 

- More coverage from the Society's Annual Conference will appear here in the coming weeks, and in the July print edition. Find out about our 2018 event

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