How social media use affects relationships
Every second Friday, I join CBC’s Here And Now for my new radio column, Love In Uncertain Times. Most recently on the column, we discussed the ways in which social media affects relationships. Check out the notes from the interview below.
How does social media affect real life relationships?
Research suggests that like all experiences, it’s a blend of both positive and negative.
- On the positive side, social media offers additional sources of social support, connection with like-minded groups, affirm relationship status, source of education, means of documenting memories
- On the flipside, social media is also associated with unrealistic expectations (e.g. #couplegoals), suspicion & jealousy, conflict, distraction from the present and adverse mental health outcomes
The way we use social media may be reflective of our attachment styles. Research shows that those who are more anxiously attached are more likely to want to affirm their relationship on social media (e.g. post about their love). Avoidant folks, on the flip side, were less likely to do so.
And when we feel more insecure about our relationships, we may be driven to make that relationship more visible online. Of course, these patterns don’t mean that posting about your relationship is a red flag and attachment styles are only one framework to consider when studying relationships — and a limiting one in that it’s a Western framework and the categories can be reductive if we don’t consider them with nuance.
If we start with some of the positive outcomes, how can being on social media be good for a romantic relationship?
One study found that couples who include their partner in their profile photo are more satisfied in their relationships; you also tend to post about the relationship more when you’re feeling happy, which is both a reflection of your relationship and a way to affirm your commitment socially. Romantic relationships and marriages don’t only involve two people — especially in more collective cultures in which families and friends are involved.
In terms of social support, we have data showing that we find support in communities online and this can be particularly important to folks who are forced to the margins in our local communities – online support and digital empathy can be key to our well being. And having multiple sources of social support — not just relying on your partner to attend to every one of your needs is essential to happy relationships.
For others, social media is a repository of happy memories. Research in the field of memory psychology reveals that you can use these for reflection when you’re feeling stuck or in a rut, because reflecting upon happy memories can induce happiness.
Does the way we view social media differ for older folks versus younger couples?
There are differences in terms of age for perceived positive outcomes. Teen daters for example are more likely to report positive associations.
- 59% say social media helps them feel more connected to a partner
- 47% say it’s a place to show how much they care
- 44% report that SM makes them feel emotionally closer to their partner
What are some of the potentially deleterious effects of social media on relationships?
We don’t always use social media for social support. We often use it to compare ourselves and even check up on exes. 53% report using social media to check up on someone they used to date.
When we compare ourselves to the highlight reels we see online, we run into issues of jealousy on our own and with our partners. 23% report feeling jealous or unsure of their relationship because of the way current partner interacts with others online, and this share rises to 34% among those ages 18 to 29. Jealousy, of course, is not inherently negative – -it can be normative and functional — but in the absence of the skills to work through and communicate about jealousy, it can lead to conflict within relationships.
You say that social media is a source of conflict in relationships. What do couples fight about?
40% are bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their cellphones and specifically 24% say they’re bothered by their partners’ time spend on social media.
From a practical perspective, if your partner is scrolling on their phone and phubbing you, it makes sense that you night feel unimportant or less alluring than what they’re seeing on their screen.
Other relationship conflict related to SM is connected to expectations of monogamy. We see terms like micro cheating popping up. Micro cheating refers to, for example, liking too many of someone else’s photos. But when I see issues like this, I don’t believe SM is to blame. It’s a lack of communication around expectations and oftentimes expectations related to toxic monogamy that have us convinced that we should have control over what our partner’s like and how they express themselves.
How do you know if social media is a problem in a relationship and what can you do if your partner’s social media use is interfering in your daily connections?
If distressing, it’s a problem, so talk about how you’re feeling, but remember that it’s not your partner’s behaviour that’s inherently problematic. It’s that your expectations and their behaviour don’t align. You can change your expectations just as they can change their behaviour. It’s not up to them to always meet your expectations, but hopefully they’ll be open to listening to how you feel.
How do you talk about social media conflict/issues in relationships?
Start with these prompts:
- How are you feeling?
- Why might you be feeling that way?
- Does it have to do with your attachment patterns and what can you do to feel more secure?
They can be a part of the solution, but you’re the driving force.
And if overall you find your don’t feel good when you spend more time on social media, set limits on specific apps on your phone. Or delete some of your apps from some of your devices (e.g. delete from your phone and leave them on your laptop) so you can limit consumption.
Click here to listen to the full interview on CBC.