Do Social Networking Sites Enhance the Attractiveness of Risky Health Behavior? Impression Management in Adolescents' Communication on Facebook and its Ethical Implications

Public Health Ethics 7 (1):5-16 (2014)

Social networking sites (SNS) are of increasing importance for adolescents’ social life. As adolescents are prone to display risky health behavior in the offline world, it is likely that they use their online profiles and communications to report on unhealthy behaviors, too. This may in turn enhance the perceived attractiveness of risky behavior within the adolescent cohort. Drawing on the insights of impression management theory, we argue in this article that adolescents use a variety of impression management tactics in their SNS profiles and communications. Following this assumption, our empirical analysis of 5851 Facebook posts (profile texts, comments, photographs, etc.) shows that the users tend to associate risky health behaviors with positive attributes, such as accomplishment or sociability, to present themselves in an attractive way to their online peer audience. We argue that this raises two ethical issues relevant to health promotion: Adolescents’ health may be challenged by interaction on SNS, as their engagement in online impression management blanks out any health problems or critical assessments of risky health behavior. At the same time, the semi-public nature of the communication arena re-enforces the tendency to value unhealthy behavior as more attractive than in offline social interactions
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DOI 10.1093/phe/pht028
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