In March 2020, one of Jason Thatcher’s Facebook followers commented on a picture he posted saying he was unsafe because his beard was showing below his face mask, Thatcher said.
“I felt really judged, so I stopped posting pictures of my face for a while,” said Thatcher, a management information systems professor. “I don’t want to have people complain at me about this.”
The experience led Thatcher to research changes in people’s social media habits during the COVID-19 pandemic to explore what people consider socially acceptable to post online. Thatcher and his colleagues Teagan Nabity-Grover of Boise State University and Christy M.K. Cheung of Hong Kong Baptist University published a research guide titled, “Inside out and outside in: How the COVID-19 pandemic affects self-disclosure on social media” in the International Journal of Information Management in December 2020.
Self-disclosure is how people communicate information about themselves to others, Thatcher said. People choose to share different information on social media because other people can interact with their content and the fear of being judged influences what people choose to post on social media, like sharing information about COVID-19 safety guidelines instead of pictures from social gatherings, he added.
“In the world we’re living in today, we’re working with a lot more eyeballs,” Thatcher said. “It’s changed the dynamic of how we act and talk online.”
Last summer, the team created a research agenda after monitoring how quarantine and social distancing guidance changed what people posted to social media sites. The agenda establishes a guide of research directions that they will use in the coming months to further understand how self-disclosure changes during public health emergencies, Thatcher said.
Following the agenda, Thatcher and his peers conducted surveys before and after Christmas 2020 using Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing website that hires remote workers for specialized tasks, to gather information on what Americans posted about their holiday celebrations on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. They intend to eventually publish the research in Financial Times academic journals like Management Information Systems Quarterly and The Journal of Applied Psychology, Thatcher said.
In December 2020, various states across the country implemented travel restrictions and COVID-19 guidelines to control the spread of the virus during Christmas. Those travelling to Pennsylvania were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior, Forbes reported. The restrictions were lifted across the state in January 2021.
Thatcher and his fellow researchers are still analyzing the data they collected around Christmas, but are finding people shared health information about COVID-19 more than pictures of gatherings or vacations that could be considered unsafe, he said.
“We never expected to have this life-altering event occur that would make us self-disclosure in the way we thought about it change so much and that was what COVID did,” Thatcher said. “It changed the rules of what was okay to talk about.”
There has also been a shift towards sharing more news stories and information across social media platforms throughout the pandemic, Thatcher said.
“I think where we’ve gone from is people sharing personal stories to people resharing news stories, in part they feel a social obligation to make people aware,” Thatcher added.
During the pandemic, Kiera Groves, a freshman accounting major, read news on social media more than she did before the pandemic because she wanted to stay updated with the latest COVID-19-related information, she said.
“We’re in a global pandemic, and I just want to know what’s going on like, and seeing when it’s going to be over because I’m so tired of it,” Groves said.
Groves has not faced judgment or negative comments from her followers when she posts photos of herself going out in public on social media, although she does not post frequently she said.
“I’ll post pictures when I go out,” Groves added. “People haven’t said anything to me, and I won’t say anything to other people. But I think whatever you’re comfortable doing is what you should do.”
Those who choose to go into public places should wear face coverings, stay six feet apart from other people and wash their hands frequently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Caroline Khoury, a sophomore advertising major, uses her phone for 10 to 11 hours per day, an increase from before the pandemic, she said.
Due to restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic, she began remote learning and couldn’t go to the gym, so she had more free time than before the lockdown to look use social media, she said.
“I was posting less because I wasn’t really doing anything, so I didn’t feel the need to post anything, but it was just mindless scrolling,” Khoury said.
Social media usage increased from 75 minutes per day on average in 2019 to 82 minutes on average in 2020. However, some users posted less during the past year because they worried about being judged for celebrating milestones like birthdays and weddings or seeing other people, Vox reported.
Zoe Budacz, a first-year speech, language and hearing science graduate student, did not use social media often before the pandemic, but now uses social media sites like TikTok and YouTube more frequently for entertainment, she said.
Budacz uses Facebook less during the pandemic because she worries about misinformation about COVID-19 on the site and finds the political content she sees on Facebook unpleasant, she said.
Facebook implemented new rules and restrictions on posts containing misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines in February to increase confidence in the effectiveness of vaccines and preventing false claims that could put others in danger, NPR reported.
She feels uncomfortable seeing her peers post photos on social media from large family events that go against public health guidelines about group gatherings, Budacz said.
“It makes me feel kind of sad and uncomfortable and nervous for them because I don’t really understand how they feel comfortable doing that kind of stuff,” she added.
As COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts continue, Thatcher predicts people will feel more comfortable posting themselves going out and gathering on social media as it becomes safer.
“I think people are much more interested in seeing you getting vaccinated, and you getting back to your normal life and we’re gonna see the shift in that content in the next 12 months,” Thatcher said.
Fully vaccinated individuals can safely gather indoors with other vaccinated people without wearing masks, and can participate in outdoor events without masks or social distancing, according to the CDC.
People are fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the CDC.
When seeing her vaccinated peers post pictures of themselves at restaurants or hanging out in groups, Budacz said she felt more comfortable knowing they were being safe.
“At this point, people that I know have been vaccinated so I guess like seeing that kind of stuff now makes me feel a little bit better,” Budacz said.
As the researchers continue to evaluate the survey responses, Thatcher and his team members are finding that people are posting pictures of life events and experiences that are considered safe and acceptable to participate in during the COVID-19 pandemic, like virtual events or outdoor gatherings.
“Even now that things are opening back up, you don’t see a lot of people posting their fancy dinners anymore, right?” Thatcher said. “And that’s because of the social climate we live in.”