Cultural Differences in Social Media Use: a Narrative Review

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In the past decade, social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have become dominant in everyday life and has radically changed the way people interact and communicate with one another. As of 2019, Facebook has registered 2.37 billion active users, followed by YouTube with 2 billion active users (Clement, 2019). Even organisations such as businesses, governments, and law enforcement agencies are increasingly recognising and utilising this opportunity to engage with their customers and citizens more effectively (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Given the ubiquitousness and proliferation of social media, the motivations, behaviours, and effects for using social media has emerged as a topic of interest among many scholars (Sheldon, Herzfeldt & Rauschnabel, 2019). While much of this research has predominantly been conducted in Western countries, there is a small but growing literature on the cultural differences in social media use (Chu & Choi, 2010). The current paper will present the theoretical framework and a review of the current literature on the cultural differences in the motivations and behaviours for social media use. Subsequently, a discussion of limitations and suggestions for future research will be put forward.

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Theoretical Framework

Individualism and Collectivism

Within cross-cultural research, Hofstede’s (1980) individualism – collectivism dimension is one of the most widely used dimensions of cultural variability. In individualistic cultures, people tend to view themselves as autonomous individuals where self-reliance and self-esteem are valued as positive social traits (Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai & Lucca, 1988). These traits encourage people to pursue their personal goals, make their own decisions, and thereby, feel proud of their personal achievements. Furthermore, individualistic people do not make strong distinctions between out-group and in-group members, but rather, maintain a consistent and independent identity irrespective of the external environment (Hofstede, 2011). Conversely, people from collectivistic cultures tend to identify and align themselves with in-group values, norms, and goals (Triandis et al., 1988). Humility, self-efficacy, and harmony are valued whereas expressing one’s self, opinions and preferences are undesired and regarded as selfish. Socialising is usually limited to only in-group members and thereby, in-group bonds are more intimate and stable than those in individualistic cultures (Hofstede, 2011).

Uses and Gratifications Theory

The most widely adopted theoretical approach in media research is the uses and gratifications (U&G) theory (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch, 1973) which posits three essential objectives. First, to explain how people use media to satisfy their psychological needs. Second, to understand the underlying motives for media use. Third, to identify the positive and negative effects of media use (Katz, Haas, & Gurevitch, 1973). Motivations guide media behaviour in regards to the decision of using different media. For example, when people are in an environment with fewer opportunities to socialise and interact, they may be motivated to engage in media that involves more social activity such as Facebook instead of YouTube. Conversely, to satisfy their entertainment needs, people may engage in YouTube rather than Facebook. Contrary to the traditional mechanist approach which asserts that individual media consumers are passive, the U&G theory postulates that individual media consumers are active and seek to fulfil their (Dolan, Conduit, Fahy & Goodman, 2015).

Literature Review

Cultural Differences in Motivations

There are a few cross-cultural studies examining motivational differences for social media use. For instance, Kim, Sohn, and Choi (2011) conducted a study on college students who used Facebook from the United States and Cyworld from Korea to examine cultural differences in motivations of social media use. The survey findings showed that American students were more motivated to seek entertainment while Korean students were more motivated to seek social support by focusing on existing relationships with close friends and family. In addition, Sheldon, Rauschnabel, Antony, and Car (2017) conducted a study on Instagram users from the United States and Croatia and found that the primary motivation for American users was self-promotion, whereas social interaction was the main motivation for Croatian users. Similarly, a study conducted on Facebook users from the United States and Korea found that Korean participants were more motivated to use Facebook interdependently, whereas American participants were more motivated to use Facebook to express their individuality (Hong & Na, 2017).

These studies are in line with the individualism – collectivism dimension and demonstrate the cultural differences in motivations for using social media. More specifically, people from individualistic countries were more motivated to use social media for self-expression. Conversely, people from collectivistic countries were more motivated to use social media for social support. Exploring the motivations behind social media use helps understand the behavioural outcomes that result from it.

Cultural Differences in Behaviours

There are a few studies that have explored cultural differences in behaviours such as time spent on social media, level of interactions, self-disclosure, and self-presentation. Several studies have shown that while the amount of time spent on social media is similar between individualistic and collectivistic cultures, people from collectivistic cultures tend to have a smaller number of friends on social media (Cho, 2010; Kim, Sohn & Choi, 2011; Sheldon et al., 2017). Among those, Sheldon et al. (2017) found that the motivation for social interaction was the strongest predictor of time spent on Instagram for Croatians, whereas the corresponding predictor for Americans was motivation for self-promotion. These findings suggests that there are cultural differences in how people value friends and interact on social media. Sheldon, Herzfeldt, and Rauschnabel (2019) found that social media users from individualistic cultures have significantly more acquaintances and strangers as friends but do not interact frequently. On the contrary, social media users from collectivistic cultures have less acquaintances and strangers as friends but interact more frequently and intimately with their friends.

Cho (2010) conducted a study on Facebook users from the United States and Cyworld users from Korea and examined self-disclosure and self-presentation behaviours. Cho found that American participants were more willing to perform higher amounts of self-disclosure compared to Korean participants. For instance, American participants were more likely to express personal opinions and fill out personal information for their online profile compared to Korean participants. However, Korean participants were more likely to show higher levels of depth of self-disclosure compared to American participants. That is, Korean participants were more likely to disclose more intimate and vulnerable personal information to their friends. Furthermore, Cho found that Korean participants tended to pay more attention to self-presentation behaviours compared to American participants. Similarly, Chu and Choi (2010) found that Chinese internet users employed more self-presentation strategies such as showing off accomplishments or talents compared to American internet users.

These findings are once again consistent with the individualism – collectivism dimension. Individualistic cultures tend to value self-esteem which encourages people to engage in self-promotional behaviours and openly disclose personal information and opinions to display their uniqueness (Triandis et al., 1988). Conversely, collectivistic cultures tend to encourage humility and self-efficacy and thereby, restrains people from explicitly expressing themselves and their opinions. However, people from collectivistic cultures tend to have more intimate relationships than people from individualistic cultures and therefore, are more willing to disclose intimate and private information with one another (Cho, 2010). Furthermore, it is unsurprising that people from collectivistic cultures are more attentive to their self-presentation behaviours as they tend to have higher levels of concern for saving face and also pay more attention to the audiences’ expectations (Triandis et al., 1988).

Limitations and Future Research

First, majority of the studies have mostly focused on participants from the United States and Korea. More research is needed in different individualistic and collectivistic countries. Furthermore, although a two-culture comparison is one of the most widely used methods in cross-cultural research, future research in this area could gather representative samples from a number of diverse cultures. Second, while there are numerous studies on the impact of social media, cross-cultural studies in this area are lacking and future research should explore the cultural differences on the positive and negative effects of social media. Third, given that these studies rely on self-reported data and are conducted on collectivistic cultures, the findings are highly prone to the social desirability bias (Fisher, 1993). Future research could collect self-reported data in conjunction with observational data such as the types of photos one posts, number of likes one receives and how this may influence behaviour, or the content of one’s captions or posts. Fourth, given that U&G theory postulates that social and psychological context affects media use and its effects, personality traits such as neuroticism, extroversion, or narcissism could be taken into account together with cultural values to obtain a more nuanced understanding. Finally, although Facebook is the most commonly used social network, future research should examine other popular social networks such as YouTube, Reddit, or Snapchat.


In conclusion, the current paper examined the emerging body of literature on cultural differences in the motivations and behaviours in using social media. The individualism – collectivism dimension helps to understand national cultural differences while the U&G framework helps in understanding the motivations and behavioural outcomes for using social media. Consistent with the individualism – collectivism dimension, people from individualistic cultures tend to use social media for self-expression and engage in self-promotional behaviours. Conversely, people from collectivistic cultures tend to use social media interdependently and interact intimately with existing relationships. Given the proliferation and ubiquitousness of social media, more cross-cultural research is needed more representative samples to examine the differences in motivations, behaviours, and effects.


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Cultural Differences in Social Media Use: A Narrative Review. (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved July 1, 2022 , from

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