Stalking, flirting, and cheating are negative relationship behaviors we tend to associate with Facebook use. It only takes a few clicks to find 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 (and 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 if not lust. Recent, 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 having a good relationship end badly.
Compared to Facebook, Twitter seems to have less potential to interfere with our emotional life. Your feeds may include news stories, updates from your community or employer, sports scores, 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 the relationship mill.
True, there are direct messages that other users don’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”?). Infusing great emotions into Twitter’s 140-character limitation presents a considerable challenge for the rest of us (though some Twitter Shakespeare accounts try). Even texting allows for more intense emotional outpourings than the average tweet. With the creative use of colorful Emojicons, you can represent a variety of feeling states. Though some of these are drifting into Twitter territory, there’s still a bit more effort and ingenuity involved. Twitter seems to have a restricted range of opportunities for us to release our hidden desires.
But 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 wounds, they troll the Facebook pages of their exes as well as 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 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 from 18 to 67 years old, and nearly two-thirds were men. Three-quarters were in a romantic relationship at the time. However, 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 toward tweet-cheating. It’s also possible that people who have difficulties with commitment like 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 those together for more or less than 18 months. Regardless of how long the individual’s romantic relationship, the amount of Twitter use in fact predicted reported infidelity and breakup, including divorce. The moral of the story is that between Twitter and Facebook, spending a great deal of time on social networking sites is linked to poorer romantic relationships.
The sample 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 can warrant concern by researchers.
I imagine you’re 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? Does it mean that you’ll never have a close relationship? Clayton points out that although the threat is there, social media don’t have to destroy people’s significant real-life interactions. He suggests that couples can always share joint accounts on social media. Indeed, when couples are already sharing home email and/or bank accounts, to do so allows them not only to keep tabs on each other but also to share their experiences.
Just as there’s “an app for that,” there are also app’s for relationships, including 2life, where couples can communicate privately over social media. When distance or other of life’s 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 reading, watching TV, or involved in sports 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 infinitely more temptations. What makes social media most dangerous include the anonymity of online interactions, availability of partners from all around the world, and opportunities to pursue a relationship with relatively little commitment, effort, or perceived risk.
If you’re a heavy-duty Twitter user, then, you may want to use this study as an opportunity to make an honest appraisal of where this need to connect is coming from. If it’s your partner whose Twitter-hooked, similarly, this study suggests that it might be time to find out what your partner 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
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.