Simulated similarity and the ‘watch out’ effect: The influence of perceived similarity in online social networking environments on risky self-disclosure in teenagers
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Social networking sites are popular virtual places for teenagers seeking social contacts. One of the dangers associated with such contacts is risky self-disclosure by the teenagers: disclosure of personal information, visual self-disclosure and finally physical self-disclosure. Communication on social networking sites consists of personal presentations including lists of interests and hobbies and messages that are exchanged between members. In both kinds of communication perceived similarity plays an important role in establishing a rapport with and even liking of strangers. This research examines such influences by manipulating the communication medium and perceived similarity, measuring liking, trust, intimate and risky self-disclosure, and investigating moderating factors. Online communication does not appear to cause a higher tendency for risky self-disclosure among teenagers. On the contrary, they report a higher tendency to do so in their offline activities. This suggests that a “watch out” effect is already established in teenagers’ attitudes towards social networking sites, possibly as a result of wide social experience with dangers lurking on such sites as well as due to increasing public information on these dangers. An observation that reinforces this explanation is that maintaining a web photo album is related to a higher tendency for risky self-disclosure in offline as well as in online communication. Other factors that reinforce this tendency (higher frequency of computer and Internet use, self-reported digital skills, positive attitude concerning the Internet for social contacts with friends and male sex) also suggest that risky self-disclosure may relate less to social networking sites than to more general personal characteristics that underlie Internet use.