Your partner has just commented on a few of his ex's photos, and his ex has commented back a few times. Are they flirting? You're bothered, but you also don't want your partner to know that you were checking on his profile since you don't want to appear jealous or insecure. It makes you more irritated and curt with your partner at dinner, but you don't mention it, hoping the problem will go away.
You’d think that living in a city with thousands of people in close proximity urbanites might spend less time on social networking sites. But, in fact, the opposite is true. City dwellers use Twitter more than people living in rural areas; New York one of the five most active cities on Twitter—Jakarta, Indonesia is number one. Cities around the world have among of the most connected users of social networking sites. It’s no wonder that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, along with dating apps like Tinder, have become common sources of tension in relationships.
Social media use is known to play a role in romantic relationships. The top reasons people say they use Facebook are to keep in touch with people and monitor people, including their current partners. Up to a third of people say they use Facebook to find out information about their exes. This has been termed “interpersonal electronic surveillance” (IES) or "social surveillance" (Tokunaga 2011; Markwick 2012). The terms make looking at a partner's or ex-partner’s site sound pathological, but the majority of checking behavior of partners on social media do not rise to that level.
What if people are simply looking on social networking sites as a way to be closer and more involved with their partners?
Monitoring a partner could bring more reassurance or cause more distress, depending on what one discovers, how the information is interpreted, and whether partners feel that the emotional foundation is strong enough to discuss it together.
There is an active debate as to whether social media use and specifically surveillance damages relationships. Survey studies have found that more time on Facebook is associated with jealousy and monitoring of a partner’s profile online (Muise et al 2009). But it’s hard to know what is the chicken or the egg—or if it's a feedback loop. One recent study found that active Twitter use was associated with increased Twitter-related conflict, which in turn is associated with increased infidelity, breakup, and divorce. But it’s difficult to know whether people who are more likely to engage in Twitter fighting are simply exhibiting a conflict that already exists in their relationship (i.e., negative Twitter interactions as just another avenue for exposing underlying communication or relationship problems) or if the Twitter use itself damages the relationship—or both.
Who is more likely to engage in electronic surveillance in relationships? Researchers hypothesized that those with higher levels of relationship uncertainty, such as fears about the future of the relationship, would demonstrate increased surveillance of partners, but two studies of Facebook users did not find this (Muise et al., 2009, Fox, et al., 2014).
Researcher Tokunaga has identified four unique aspects of social networking sites that make them more prone to relationship surveillance:
I suggest these additional factors that might make social media surveillance lead to tension in romantic relationships:
Checking up on romantic partners via social media, even when benign or mutual, can create a potential for conflict—just like any other form of communication can. Even though social media is different from email, texting, or other forms of interaction, how couples handle social media and monitoring should be similar to how they deal with any other type of communication issue.
How can you make social media work in your relationship?
The use of social networking sites and the checking of partners' profiles is a common and everyday part of today’s modern romantic relationships that is most often not pathological. Handling these issues within a romantic relationship is similar to handling any other communication issue. Rather than avoiding social media, it’s important to focus on underlying feelings and communication. Partners can work together to examine how and why they use social networking sites in their relationships, be curious about how it makes them feel, and discuss how they want to handle it in their relationship in a way is respectful and honors each other’s feelings and point of view.
This is part of my Urban Survival blog that focuses on the stresses of city living.
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