2018 Scholarship winner: Carson Wagner

What are some dangers that youth may face on the internet?

In second grade, I was the COOLEST kid on my playground. You better believe when I showed up to class with light-up Sketchers and fists full of Pokemon cards, the crowd went wild. But in third grade, everything changed. There was a new group of cool kids in town—and they were really into the card game Yu-Gi-Oh. My light-up Sketchers were spat upon, and my Pokemon cards were laughed at. I had gone from hero to zero practically overnight—what happened to my social influence?

According to the American Psychological Association, social influence is defined as any change in an individual’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors caused by other people— like wearing light-up Sketchers to fit in with the cool kids. Considering social influence could change individuals, and therefore the world as we know it, it is crucial for us to learn more about it. So, let’s look at what social influence is, discover how it functions online, and consider the benefits and potential dangers of the psychological concept that ruined my childhood.

Let’s first explore the social phenomenon that once allowed me to be temporarily cool and provide a case example. An April 2018 Simply Psychology article explains, “social influence” is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of powerful persuasive messages, but it often leads to conformity—or a change in belief or behavior in response to real or imaginary pressures–you know, like being pressured into an activity without reading the terms and conditions. The article goes on to explain, there are two main reasons why people tend to conform: the first is that they want to fit in with the cool kids because they fear rejection, which can cause people to do… questionable things. The second reason is when people lack information or doubt their knowledge, they accept the general consensus as their own, causing them to change their beliefs and knowledge to fit with others. For example, if all your friends got the answer of 32 in math class, and you got Obama, you aren’t gonna say you got Obama.

In fact, people even doubt themselves when there is nothing to doubt: According to Discover Magazine, Andrew Gallup, assistant professor of Psychology at Princeton University did an experiment in May of 2012, consisting of having a group of actors walk down a crowded street and glance upwards. What were they looking at? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Gallup found that about 27% of people stopped walking down the street to look up at the same place as these actors, and when they didn’t see anything, they kept on looking anyway because they doubted themselves! I wonder what they were looking for? Happiness? Love? Hope? These people would never normally just look up, staring into the blank sky without reason, but they didn’t want to look out of place so they looked up too. People conform to not be rejected or left out of what is going on.

The manifestations of social influence reach far past the playground. Let’s examine how it’s used online for advertisement and political purposes.
Initially, companies often harness the power of social influence to sell their products. According to Forbes in July of 2016, celebrities can immediately raise a company’s sales by almost 4% with just a single endorsement. People see their favorite celebrities wearing clothes from a certain company, or eating a specific type of food, and believe that company must be the new trend and buy the company’s products, thus raising their sales. A celebrity’s hold on popular culture is ultimately used to advertise for companies because of their social influence. For example, Hot Pockets could pay Snoop Dogg to make music video about Hot Pockets. Oh wait, that actually happened in 2012. Pocket like it’s hot, pocket like it’s hot… Google it.

Second, social influence can shape and reinforce our political beliefs. According to the New York Times from October 12th, 2017, Facebook allows business and political pages to show their posts in feeds of people they are not connected to, targeting the interests or behaviors of a person. When you describe yourself and click links on Facebook, it begins to learn about you. Your interests, your behavior, and your embarrassing Google searches like Minion Fan-fiction. In fact, the ad system allows them to view activity on other internet services that you’ve used. They decide through these activities, interests, and behaviors to determine what your political beliefs are, as well as how much you care about politics. From this, they then send you advertisements from political pages that match up with your beliefs. From Facebook to Pinterest, social media utilizes social influence to affect our beliefs about products and politics through exposure. The ability to influence your surroundings, Pokemon Cards or not, holds all kinds of unexpected power to spread good or dangerous concepts.

Social influence can help spread positive messages and information. According to the Texas Tribune, on June 27th, 2018, a Facebook fundraiser raising money for immigrants separated from family members raised millions of dollars in just a few days. Over 250,000 people, have donated over 20 million dollars, when the original goal was only to reach one thousand five hundred. These funds are being given to the Refugees and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. In fact, according to a Facebook spokesperson, this has been the largest fundraiser to date on the social media platform. People donating towards a single, helpful goal shows the true potential of using social influence for good.

However, despite the good uses of social influence, there are some potential dangers as well, such as fake news. NBC in March of 2018 explains how it took true stories six times longer to reach 1500 people than it did for fake stories. People want to click things that are more novel, like these fake stories. Further, the Washington Post from June 2016 details people may not even read these stories before spreading them. When a fake story with a clickbait title is given to the internet, 6/10 people spread it without even reading the article. People spread these stories assuming they are right because friends sent them, and the websites they send are usually ones they like or they have similar beliefs as their friends. But this kind of social influence relies on ignorance. In our age of technology, social influence can be used for the good of society, or the destruction and demise of our nation.

Today, we learned what social influence is; discovered how it functions online, and finally, considered its benefits and potential dangers. So, while I might have been unable to wield social influence to my advantage during the treacherous third grade, changing times have redefined how we go about influencing others, especially in an online culture. It is no longer about what is cool, but rather, who gets to define the word cool.

About Us

KidGuard’s sole mission is to protect your children online. Our team spends every waking hour thinking about how to bring awareness and inspire solutions on issues of cyber bullying, online predators, teen suicide, and childhood depression in the age of technology. KidGuard employs a team of researchers and writers to educate parents on solutions to digital parenting problems and also runs a popular child cell phone monitoring software to allow parents to stay involved in their child’s life online.

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