"He loves Facebook more than he loves me!"
As a practicing psychologist, I’ve listened to more than one partner complain that his or her relationship went south after his or her partner got “hooked” on the Facebook or some other social-networking site. In my private thoughts, I've usually taken such complaints with a grain of skepticism: Maybe it wasn’t the internet that was causing the unhappiness, but that unhappy partners turned to the web for comfort or distraction.
Can the internet really hurt relationships?
Until now, the issue has pretty much remained a matter of debate. There have been studies that show that excessive Internet use is correlated with depression, stress, and loneliness. However, these studies leave us with a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Does Internet overuse or “addiction” cause unhappiness, or do unhappy people simply use the Internet more than happy people do?
Researchers are now shedding some light on this vexing issue.
Social Networking and Marital Unhappiness
In one study, researchers from Boston and Santiago, Chile, looked at the relationship between social networking and marital happiness, as well as trends linking social network availability and divorce rates. They focused on 1,160 married couples between the ages of 18 and 39 who were surveyed by the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center. These couples were asked to rate their relationship on a 10-point scale based on statements such as:
- We have a good relationship.
- My relationship with my partner is very healthy.
The researchers also measured the extent to which partners in these relationships utilized social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Here is what they reported: Increased use of social networking is correlated with poorer marital happiness and a higher likelihood of a troubled relationship, along with thoughts of divorce.
This still doesn’t answer the question of which comes first—an unhappy marriage or greater use of social networking? Aren’t those men and women who are unhappy just turning to social media as an outlet for their unhappiness? Maybe, but maybe not. Let’s look a little further.
Social Networking and Divorce
This same research team looked at how growth in the use of social networking might be related to divorce rates. To do this they determined the “penetration rates” of sites such as Facebook across the U.S. over time—specifically, from 2008 through 2010. What they discovered was something that family lawyers had been reporting anecdotally for some time: The greater penetration of social media from 2008 to 2010 was positively correlated with increases in divorce rates.
Taken together, the above results constitute evidence suggesting that excessive use of social networking and similar sites could indeed not just play a role in compensating for an unhappy relationship but may actually contribute to that unhappiness.
What is still missing is the “smoking gun”—evidence bearing on what comes first.
The Chicken/Egg Dilemma—Resolved
Another study helps us begin to gain some insight into the question of whether excessive internet use causes unhappiness (including marital unhappiness) or whether unhappiness drives people to the internet and social media. In this study, researchers from the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology at Amsterdam's VU University followed 398 married couples over a period of four years. Significantly, these were all newlywed couples at the outset of the study, and they were first surveyed with respect to both marital and personal happiness, as well as internet usage, just one month after getting married.
Participants were asked to gauge their internet use by responding on a 10-point scale to statements such as:
- I find it difficult to stop using the internet once I am online.
- I prefer to use the internet instead of spending time with others, including my partner.
The psychological variables that were assessed, using a similar technique, included:
Both Internet usage and the above measures of well-being were assessed a total of five times over four years. And what did the team find?
- Increased use of the Internet over time was associated with decreased well-being.
- Increased use of the Internet over time was found to be related to increases in depression, stress, and loneliness.
These results led the researchers to the following conclusion: Increased use of the internet over time lowers overall well-being.
Implications for Couples
So what do we advise couples and newlyweds to do with respect to social media and the Internet? Are they best off simply going off the grid if they want a happy relationship? Given the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media, I doubt many people would follow such advice. On the other hand, it appears that there may be a grain of truth in some of the complaints cited at the outset of this post. So maybe the least that individuals can do is to periodically pause to take stock.
The following final questions are offered here as food for thought:
- Looking back over the past two years, has my daily usage of the internet, including social networking sites, increased? If so, by how much, on average, has it increased per day?
- Has my partner (or someone else in my life) commented (or complained) on the increasing time I spend on the internet?
- Am I as happy now as I was two years ago? Do I feel more stressed now than I did then? If I were to be honest, do I feel more lonely now than I did two years ago?
Your answers to the above just might prove to be a turning point. They could help you decide to make some changes for your own benefit as well as your partner's.
@2014 by Joseph Nowinski, PhD
Joseph Nowinski is the author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder.