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Problematic Engagement: The Dark Side Of Social Media Influencing

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Do you follow influencers on social media? Do you always check their posts? Do you find you’re spending too much time or becoming obsessed with checking influencers’ accounts? And when you can’t check in, do you feel disconnected or lost?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may have what’s known as “problematic engagement” with social media influencers.
But don’t blame yourself too much. You are among the many who have been swept away by dazzling social media influencing. And this can be attributed to many features and tactics social media influencers employ that help keep them influential — like livestreams and polls on Instagram.

As experts in social media and user behaviour, we recently published a paper that looks at followers’ problematic engagement with influencers on social media. Our paper is among the first to study which aspects of social media influencing may lead to followers’ problematic engagement. It is important to examine this context considering the significant volume and revenues of social media influencing — it’s a US$13.8 billion industry.

The issue of problematic engagement

In the age of social media, most people know of or follow some social media influencers. Social media influencers are users who have a significant number of followers with established credibility.

Whether you are a fashion fan or want information on health and fitness — there’s an influencer to follow. And followers often gravitate towards them for their authenticity and content creation.


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But less focus is put on the dark side of social media influencing. Influencers are motivated and often incentivized (through product and brand endorsement) to increase their power on social media and many are becoming more proficient in attracting and engaging followers.
Followers, on the other hand, can easily become attached and obsessed with influencers and their engagement can often become excessive and unhealthy. Problematic engagement with social media influencers is common among followers, but not well known or understood.

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Our research

We recently examined the factors and mechanisms that lead to problematic engagement. We focused on three influencer characteristics (physical attractiveness, social attractiveness and self-presence) and two follower participation attributes (participation comprehensiveness and following length) to explore their effects on the development of problematic engagement through the formation of follower attachments.
Based on attachment theory, we studied two types of attachments — parasocial relationship and sense of belonging, both of which are key in social media influencing. Parasocial relationship is followers’ perception of their one-sided relationship with an influencer and sense of belonging refers to the feeling of being an integral member of the influencer’s community.

We conducted an online survey of 500 Instagram users. The results showed that when followers develop attachments both to influencers (parasocial relationship) and their community (sense of belonging), this can lead to problematic engagement.
We found that influencers’ social attractiveness has a stronger effect than other factors in building followers’ attachments. Following more influencers could reduce the impact of attachment to the community (sense of belonging) when it comes to problematic engagement, but not the effect of attachment to the influencer (parasocial relationship).

Implications for influencers and followers

Our study warns of and explains problematic engagement to social media users.

We argue that social media users who are attracted to influencers can become easily attached and engage excessively. Users need to be aware of, watch out for and exert self-regulations to manage their interactions with influencers.

For example, participation comprehensiveness — which refers to the reasons for following and extent of followers’ participation (like watching, liking, commenting, sharing) — can lead to attachment development. This, however, can be consciously managed by followers themselves. One way of doing this is by making use of the phone’s functions and tools like setting daily time limits on Instagram or turning off notifications for the app.


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Social media influencers should also be aware of followers’ problematic engagement. Although it may be in contrast with their goal of increasing follower engagement, they can focus on creating a healthy relationship with their followers.

For instance, influencers can openly talk about the issue of problematic engagement and show care for their followers’ well-being. This will help with sustainability of the relationship because studies have shown that social media users with problematic behaviour are more likely to stop using platforms after a while.

More research on the dark side of social media influencers is needed and we call for future research to focus on additional negative consequences such as followers’ anxiety, depression and the impact of following influencers on followers’ well-being.

This article is authored by Samira Farivar, Assistant Professor, Information Systems, Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, Fang Wang Professor, Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ofir Turel Professor, School of Computing and Information Systems, The University of Melbourne. This article was  first published by The Conversation.