How to keep your messages private, but still feel safe on social networks

The latest study from the University of Michigan suggests that people with a higher sense of privacy are less likely to feel comfortable sharing their private messages with other people.

The research was conducted by a team led by Dr. Jennifer A. Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University at Buffalo.

The researchers asked people whether they’d be comfortable sharing a private message with a friend, and whether they felt like they’d shared their personal information with the person they were communicating with. 

People with lower levels of privacy, they found, were less likely than those with higher levels of trust and openness to be open about their personal experiences, and more likely to express fear that sharing their personal feelings could damage the person with whom they’re communicating. 

The study is the first to examine the link between people’s levels of personal privacy and their feelings about sharing their own private messages.

“I think the best way to think about this is that when people have a low level of privacy and don’t feel comfortable disclosing their private feelings, they are more likely than others to think that sharing your own private feelings would cause harm,” Johnson said in a statement.

“The research also suggests that when a person feels less secure in their private life, they may be more likely (to) not feel safe sharing their feelings, so people who are more comfortable in their privacy are likely to be more comfortable sharing theirs.” 

What’s a private moment, anyway?

In the study, researchers recruited 200 people and had them view a series of images of different people, including the same ones in the pictures but with a different caption, from different angles. 

Some of the images were of the same person but in different locations, while others showed different photos from different locations.

The participants were asked to rate the perceived safety of each image, and to rate how they felt about the images overall. 

After viewing the images, participants were then asked to say whether they had ever shared a private communication with a trusted person, like a partner or friend. 

More than 70 percent of participants said they’d never shared a communication with another person without their partner’s permission, and about 25 percent said they never shared their private communication at all. 

But the researchers also looked at whether people with higher trust and open relationships felt more comfortable expressing their own concerns about sharing a message with someone they don’t know.

They found that those with lower trust and a lower openness to sharing shared their fears more than those who had a higher level of trust. 

“When people with lower level of personal security feel less secure, they feel less comfortable sharing about their own personal experiences,” Johnson explained.

“In fact, those with a lower level (of trust) felt less safe in sharing about what they’ve experienced in their own life.”

“It’s important to note that while trust and safety can vary from person to person, the results suggest that there may be some overlap between people who feel safer sharing a personal story and those who feel more insecure,” Johnson added.

“This means that people may be better able to express their fears and needs in a way that is supportive and safe for everyone else.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.