Fulfillment at Any Age

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Infidelity, in 140 Characters or Less

Online cheating: It's not just for Facebook users anymore.

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Stalking, flirting, and cheating are just some of the negative relationship behaviors we tend to associate with Facebook use. After all, it only takes a few clicks to find and connect with your ex, the man or woman you see every day at work or in the neighborhood, or a group of people with like-minded social (or sexual) interests. With people posting pictures galore, often not all that well-edited for discretionary purposes, it’s easy for yearnings to develop into what feels very much like love, or at least lust. Recent (and questionable) research on Facebook users finds that our emotional state may be affected by the postings we see, or don’t see, from our friends. However, it’s also known that Facebook use carries with it a number of potentially harmful emotional consequences, including the risk of making a good relationship end badly.

Compared to Facebook, Twitter would seem to have much less potential to interfere with our emotional life. Your Twitter feeds may include news stories, items from your community or employer, sports updates, or celebrity postings, but because Twitter feels less private than even Facebook (due to postings being searchable with hashtags), you may be less tempted to view it as fodder for relationships.

True, there are direct messages that other users can’t see, but the potential for self-expression seems a bit limited. Shakespeare could pack a great deal of meaning into a few brief characters (“What's in a name?", etc.). but infusing great emotions into Twitter’s 140-character maximum presents a considerable challenge for the rest of us (though some Twitter Shakespeare accounts try). Twitter would seems to have a restricted range of opportunities for us to release our hidden desires.

Or maybe not.

Following up on a previous study investigating Facebook use and negative relationship outcomes, University of Missouri-Columbia journalism professor Russell B. Clayton (2014) conducted an online survey in which he asked nearly 600 Twitter users to report on their involvement in the messaging site and its impact on their closest relationships. In the Facebook study, Clayton found that heavy-duty Facebook users tended to have a host of relationship problems. Not only are they more likely to experience jealousy and breakups, but after the breakup occurs, they heal more slowly. (Presumably, to assuage their hurt, they troll the Facebook pages of their exes, as well as of the friends they had in common, to see what they're up to.

Clayton used the same approach in the online Twitter study.  He devised a variable called “Twitter-related conflict” which asked the questions, “How often do you have an argument with your significant other as a result of excessive Twitter use?” and, “How often do you have an argument with your significant other as a result of viewing friends' Twitter profiles? (To measure Twitter usage, he asked respondents to indicate how often they log in, tweet, use “@replies,” send direct messages, and check their newsfeed.)

The questions about Twitter’s impact on relationship quality went straight to the point: Did users ever either physically or emotionally cheat with someone they knew on Twitter, and did Twitter led to a breakup or divorce? Of the 3.4 million Twitter users who could have responded, the sample of 581 ranged in age from 18 to 67, and nearly two-thirds were men. Three-quarters were in a romantic relationship at the time. (If they weren’t in a relationship at the moment, they were asked to report about a previous relationship.)

Obviously, in a correlational study such as this, it’s necessary to issue the usual statistician’s warning that the researchers could not make conclusions about causality. People who are unhappy in their relationship might stray more easily toward tweet-cheating. It’s also possible that people who have difficulties with commitment gravitate to Twitter because of its superficial nature. You’re in a “social” relationship on Twitter, but not one that’s necessarily interpersonal in the usual sense of the word.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the findings: Clayton used active Twitter use as the predictor, or independent, variable, along with length of relationship, dividing the sample between people together for more or less than 18 months. And regardless of how long the individual’s romantic relationship had been going on, the amount of Twitter use in fact predicted reported infidelity and breakups, including divorce.

The moral of the story: Between Twitter and Facebook, spending a great deal of time on social networking sites is linked to poorer romantic relationships.

The study's sample group had reasonably active Twitter use, with the average for all participants at about 3.35 out of a possible 5. They also tended to have at least one of the three possible negative relationship outcomes occur to them (two types of infidelity, and breakup or divorce). They also had a moderate amount of Twitter-related conflict with their real-life partners. Apart from the study’s other findings, these data indicate that Twitter-related relationship problems could warrant concern by researchers.

You may be reading this blog as the result of a Facebook or Twitter post that directed you to this site. If so, does this mean your closest relationship is either doomed or already over—or that you’ll never have a close relationship? Not at all. Clayton points out that although the threat is there, social media doesn’t have to destroy people’s significant real-life interactions. For example, couples can share joint social-media accounts, just as many already share home email and/or bank accounts. Doing so not only allows them to keep tabs on each other but also to share their experiences.

There are also apps for relationships, such as 2life, in which couples can communicate privately over social media. When distance, or other complications, prevent face-to-face communication, these relationship-oriented social media may help keep a couple’s attention focused on each other.

In the past, couples who weren’t getting along might have spent their time in solitary activities—reading, watching TV, exercise, or other hobbies. Although almost any human activity can provide the basis for cheating on your partner, it seems that social media in particular present more temptations, due to the anonymity of online interactions, the availability of partners from around the world, and the opportunity to pursue a relationship with relatively little commitment, effort, or perceived risk.

If you’re a heavy-duty Twitter user, you may want to use this study's results as an opportunity to make an honest appraisal of where the need to connect is coming from. And if it’s your partner who's Twitter-hooked, this study suggests that it might be time to find out what he or she feels is missing. 

 

Please feel free to add your own suggestions to the comments section here, or tweet to me on Twitter @swhitbo or through my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age."

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 

 

References

  • Clayton, R. B. (2014) The Third Wheel: The Impact of Twitter Use on Relationship Infidelity and Divorce Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 17(7): 425-430. doi:10.1089/cyber.2013.0570.
  • Clayton, R.,Nagurney, A., & Smith, J. (2013) Cheating, breakup, and divorce: is Facebook use to blame? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking; 16:717–720.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment.

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