By Lauren F. Friedman, published on January 2, 2013 - last reviewed on March 12, 2013
Remember privacy? Two people could meet, fall in love, and start a life together, and only their families and perhaps closest friends would know. Well, that’s a thing of the past—at least for the 1 billion (and counting) people on Facebook. “It makes our relationships transparent in a way they’ve never been before,” says Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist at the National Science Foundation who has studied online behavior. A slew of recent findings demonstrates that the ubiquitous social networking giant is now a factor and often a complication at every stage of a relationship.
If you like someone on Facebook, it might be worth a shot in the flesh: A growing body of research suggests that people are roughly the same on- and offline. One study in Psychological Science reports that when people rate others’ personalities based only on their Facebook profiles, the assessments tend to be an accurate reflection of reality. But superficial things manipulate our perceptions: Israeli researchers found that when a man is holding a guitar in his profile photo, women are three times more likely to respond positively to a flirtatious introduction.
The wealth of information on a typical profile can be dangerous. “Being on Facebook exposes us to information about our partner that we may not otherwise be privy to and that lacks context,” notes Amy Muise, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto. A recent study led by Muise found that the more time people spend on Facebook, the more jealous of their partners they are likely to be. (Whether Facebook “creeping” leads to jealousy or jealousy leads to “creeping” is difficult to tease apart, but the authors suggest that it’s most likely a bit of both.)
In the 1963 movie musical Bye Bye Birdie, one of the central scenes has all the teenagers in town frantically calling each other with the news that the two main characters are “going steady.” Now? One simple click, and everyone knows. “Commitment is no longer a private relationship agreement,” observes Muise, and that can lead to very public problems. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison found that disagreements within couples over the perilous “relationship status” field were associated with lower relationship satisfaction for women.
Cutting ties was once as easy as burning a pile of love letters and shipping a box of left-behind miscellany, but breaking up on Facebook adds a new layer of complexity. “I’ve heard people say over and over again: ‘A breakup is not official until it happens on Facebook,’” notes Guadagno—but even then, it’s hard to make a clean break. About 75 percent of those surveyed in Muise’s study indicated that they were inclined to add ex-partners as friends; another study found that a third of users actively keep tabs on their exes, although such behavior is associated with more distress and difficulty moving on.