Exposure To Hate Speech On Facebook Undermines Users’ Mental Health

CREDIT: Darren Abate/Invision for Facebook/AP Images

A new study from Italy finds that social networking sites like Facebook have a negative impact on individuals’ mental well-being, as well as their levels of social trust, because of their exposure to hate speech and other offensive content.

Researchers at Rome’s Sapienza University and the Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques du Grand-Duché du Luxembourg analyzed a wide representative sample of 50,000 Italian citizens, assessing how much they interacted with social media and how they rated their happiness and self-esteem. Those who used sites like Facebook more often tended to have stronger relationships with people they were connected to, but lower social trust because of the strangers they interacted with in venues like comment threads.

The researchers note that “there is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do.” In online networks, however, exposure to a greater diversity of ideas may cause individuals to realize they are “surrounded with preference types they dislike (e.g. a racist person may find out that most people appreciate ethnic diversity, or vise versa).”

For example, “tolerant users may easily find themselves to interact with unknown, racist or homophobic readers in a ‘public’ page,” which can turn into a “powerful source of frustration and distrust.” The study notes that the high risk of being targeted with offensive behaviors and hate speech is “particularly significant for women and users belonging to minorities or discriminated groups.”

This is exacerbated by the fact that online discussions do not obey “the same social norms usually acknowledged in physical interactions.” Because strangers’ reactions are “invisible,” the study suggests, “people care less of the risk of offending others in a conversation.” That’s why “in online interactions, dealing with strangers who advance opposite views in an aggressive and insulting way seems to be a widespread practice.”

This risk of worsening people’s trust in others in turn has an impact on people’s life satisfaction. The researchers recommend that Facebook do more to moderate content and create avenues for feedback and review to hold accountable those proliferating offensive, hurtful, or hateful speech.

A recent study of how young people are using social networking found that LGBT youth turn to the internet to find social support, but it also opens them to cyberbullying. LGBT young people were nearly three times as likely (42 percent vs. 15 percent) to experience cyberbullying, especially in rural areas. Back in 2012, Facebook rolled out a series of new tools to assist users who encounter cyberbullying, but it remains unclear how effectively the site has been at moderating content.