Students Get Federal Grant for Facebook Study

June 09, 2009 - News Release

Two University of Guelph graduate students have received a grant from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to further their research on Facebook and the disclosure of personal information.

Psychology PhD students Amy Muise and Emily Christofides received nearly $50,000 — the maximum allowed — from the office's Contributions Program, considered among the foremost privacy research funding programs in the world.

"We're very excited," Muise said. "It's great that the government is taking a strong interest in this area of research." She and Christofides were sought out by the commissioner's office and encouraged to apply for the grant shortly after their first study on Facebook was published last December. They are being advised by Guelph psychology professor Serge Desmarais, an expert in gender issues and interpersonal relationships, who is the grant's principal investigator.

Their research, which appeared in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, found that the need for popularity is driving university students to disclose more personal information on Facebook than they normally would reveal in other social situations.

"The privacy commissioner is taking a strong interest in research that informs us about people's behaviour in relation to their privacy and how we can encourage people to protect their privacy," Christofides said.

Currently, there are few data in Canada about people's behaviour and social networking sites, the researchers said. They will use the grant to expand their studies to include high school students and adults.

"Youth are sharing a great deal of information on social networking sites such as Facebook and may not fully realize the consequences of this disclosure," Muise said. Adults are increasingly using sites such as Facebook to connect with old friends and keep their extended network up to date on their lives.

Research is needed to provide greater insight into the experiences and the predictors of information sharing on social network sites in order to provide education about online disclosure and privacy, the researchers said.

Facebook was selected for the study because it's the most popular social network website in Canada. Launched in 2004, it has more than 120 million active users worldwide.

Desmarais said the government grant illustrates the importance of this new area of research. "Online social network sites like Facebook are changing the nature of social relationships — it's become a phenomenon."

The U of G grant was one of 11 announced recently by Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's privacy commissioner. "I'm proud that our office is able to help encourage relevant and cutting-edge research," she said. "I am also glad that we can work with established organizations to spread knowledge about the importance of privacy."

For media questions, contact U of G Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982

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