Social Behavioral Research

Use of Social Media as a Research Activity

This page will assist you if you intend to collect social media data for research purposes. It covers when you need to submit to the IRB as well as best practices for use of social media data that is not considered human subjects’ data. The page does not provide guidance about using social media for participant recruitment. We have separate guidance for social media recruitment, linked below.

Social Media Data and Human Subjects Research


Use of social media data may or may not be human subjects research that requires IRB review. If the data that you will access is publicly available (e.g., from publicly available accounts or platforms that are publicly available), it is not human subjects research because you are not accessing private information. However, ethical considerations still apply to use of publicly available data. If the data that you will access is from private accounts, it is human subjects’ data and submission to the IRB is required prior to data collection.

Even though publicly available data does not require IRB review, there are still ethical considerations for use of this data. People do not create social media content thinking that it will be used for research. The Association of Internet Researchers produces guidelines for ethical use of publicly available data, as well as recommendations for how to obtain permission to use data and protect content creators. Please be especially mindful when using photographs, videos, and other image-based content.

AoIR Guidelines

Use of private social media data requires IRB review. Most research that uses private social media data is reviewed under exempt category 4, which covers secondary data analysis. However, unlike some other exempt 4 research (e.g., chart reviews), we recommend obtaining informed consent whenever possible prior to accessing/downloading private data. If you do not intend to obtain informed consent, you will have to explain why it is impracticable to do so and why your research would not pose any harm or reputational risk to participants. With your IRB application, please explain how you will access data, how you will de-identify it or why you will not de-identify it, where you will store it, and when (if relevant) you will delete identifiers.

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