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Is Facebook Faith For Everyone?

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Social media is an effective vessel for New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow to carry his religious message. When he quotes Scripture or wishes people a good night with God's blessings, he has an audience of nearly 2 million public subscribers to his Facebook page and more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter.

For average social media users, however, deciding how much of their personal faith to disclose online is not so easy.

Will sharing my religious life make me more or less likely to get a date? Make new friends? Expand professional networks?

If they just disclosed that they are Catholic or United Methodist or Jewish, Facebook users can pretty much stop worrying, new research with young adults indicates.

Studies of college students also reveal, however, that both the costs and the benefits may increase the more people share about their faith. Those with similar religious beliefs will have more positive impressions of those who disclose a great deal about their faith; others may be more likely to hold negative stereotypes of individuals who talk about God's plan for their lives and list Casting Crowns, Switchfoot and Mercy Me among their favorite musical groups.

The findings that spiritual dialogue is dominated by those already committed to their faith also may be sobering news to religious groups hoping Facebook and Twitter may provide a shortcut to evangelizing younger generations.

Online faith

Issues of online privacy now are drawing intense scrutiny from federal regulars and Congress.

The recent report of an ill-considered Facebook post "checking out" Sarah Palin by one of the Secret Service agents linked to an ongoing sex scandal is only the latest in a series of high-profile social media gaffes.

But worries over how much to share on sites such as Facebook and MySpace have long been a concern of users.

Nearly three-quarters of young adults ages 18 to 25 in the Pew Research Center's 2006 Generation Next Survey said people their age post too much personal information on the Internet.

And young adults seem reluctant to reveal a lot about their faith online.

Researchers Piotr Bobkowski of the University of Kansas and Lisa Pearce of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found more than 60 percent of a sample of 560 young adults listed a religious identity in their MySpace profiles.

They also found, however, that fewer than one in three of the profile owners said something about religion outside of disclosing their religious identity. Those who were more likely to talk about their faith were young adults who believe religion is a public matter or have positive views of organized religion.

Overall, the study showed "social media users rarely disclose much about religion in their online profiles and, when they do, their disclosures tend to be brief and superficial," Bobkowski and Pearce wrote in an article on "Baring Their Souls in Online Profiles or Not? Religious Self-Disclosure in Social Media in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In a separate study of the effects of online Christian self-disclosure, Bobkowski and Sriram Kalyanaraman of the University of North Carolina found few negative consequences of social media users merely revealing a religious identity online.

"Identifying your religious affiliation doesn't seem to affect the way you are perceived," Bobkowski said in an interview. "It doesn't seem to hurt you. It doesn't seem to benefit you. It's just an is."

What they found did matter in their study of 233 undergraduates reacting to test profiles is how much was shared about faith.

Very religious participants tended to view extensively disclosing Christians as significantly more likable and more romantically desirable than either nominally disclosing Christians or non-disclosers, Bobkowski and Kalyanaraman reported in an article in the JSSR.

Regardless of how much was shared about faith, religious respondents rated profile owners as more likeable and less stereotypically negative than less religious respondents.

However, the least religious respondents tended to rate extensively disclosing Christians as least romantically desirable and with more negative stereotyping, the researchers reported.

How much to disclose may depend on who your online friends are.

"It all depends on the audience that individual is trying to communicate to, and the most important element of the audience they are trying to influence," Bobkowski said.

Looking ahead

There is still a great need for more research on religious disclosure in social media. But what is available seems to be consistent with other studies showing a wariness among young adults toward organized religion.

For instance, three-quarters of respondents ages 18 to 24 said modern-day Christianity "has good values and principles." But more than six in 10 respondents said it is anti-gay and "judgmental," according to the Public Religion Research Institute's 2012 Millennial Values Survey.

In the larger picture, Bobkowski said, social media seems to be more reflective of young people's attitudes toward religion than an instrument of change. The great majority of religious dialogue online is dominated by individuals who are already invested in religion.

For religious groups, that means Facebook and Twitter do not appear to be shortcuts for the hard work of reaching out in personal ways to make their faith relevant to younger generations.

"It's not the magic pill that clergy and religious leaders might be looking for to get young people involved in religion," Bobkowski said.

And for those seeking to use social media to increase their romantic prospects or find a job, it may be best to worry less about disclosing their religious preferences, and to spend that time developing their personalities and polishing off their resumes.

Unless you are planning on winning the Heisman trophy, leading a series of dramatic comeback wins in the NFL and becoming part of a quarterback controversy in the nation's leading media market. Did someone say Tim Tebow?

Then you can expect 135,000 likes when you wish everyone a Merry Christmas

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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