Who Gets Suspicious on Facebook?

Surveillance through social media

Posted Jul 25, 2019

Dan Race/Shutterstock
Phone checking
Source: Dan Race/Shutterstock

You and your romantic partner are apart for a few days.  You get a message saying “I see you’ve been on Facebook lots today.”  As we know, Facebook provides information regarding who is currently online or when they were last online, and the availability of such information may motivate people to check up on their partner’s online activity.  Back in 2008 Joinson reported that the most common use people gave for using Facebook was for keeping in contact with other people, with the second most common use being finding out what friends and acquaintances were doing (Joinson, 2008).  Before this, Stern & Willis (2007) reported that 60% of college students reported checking up on partners on social media.  For jealous partners, who want to find out what their partner is currently doing, Facebook or social media surveillance offers anonymity, convenience and a low risk of detection.

But are there certain types of people, or certain types of relationships where people are more likely to check up on the online activity of their partner?  One possibility is that online checking or surveillance behaviour may be related to the way in which an individual forms an attachment to their romantic partner, which is known as their attachment style.

Attachment style

Attachment style within a romantic relationship refers to the way in which individuals interact with their romantic partner and has an effect on their levels of satisfaction, trust and intimacy within their relationship.  Those who display high levels of attachment anxiety are often concerned that their partners may reject them.  They may behave in such a way as to excessively monitor their partner’s movements and may judge situations which are otherwise innocent or ambiguous, as threatening.  If their partner is absent, they may become angry, clingy or controlling.  Those individuals who display attachment avoidance do not rely on their partners to be available to them and tend to keep emotionally distant.  Furthermore, people with an anxious attachment style report that they experience higher degrees of jealousy than those with an avoidant attachment style.  Individuals who are low on both attachment anxiety and avoidance are defined as securely attached.  Given the above reasoning, those with anxious attachment styles should engage in more surveillance behaviour, whereas those with avoidant attachment styles should display lower levels of surveillance behaviour.

Facebook jealousy, and attachment

Tara Marshall and her colleagues tested the idea that avoidant attachment is negatively related and anxious attachment is positively related to Facebook jealousy and surveillance (Marshall, Bejanyan, Di Castro and Lee, 2013).  Alternatively, Facebook surveillance could reflect a healthy relationship where partners look at each other’s social media profiles when apart, in order to create a feeling of closeness.

In their study, they employed 255 participants who completed measures of:

  • Attachment on two dimensions attachment anxiety, e.g. “When I show my feelings for my partner, I’m afraid they will not feel the same about me” and attachment avoidance “I prefer not to be too close to romantic partners”.
  • Self-esteem ”On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”
  • Relationship Quality measuring relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, trust, passion and love, e.g. “How committed are you to your relationship?”
  • Facebook Jealousy e.g. “How likely are you to look at your partner’s Facebook page if you are suspicious of their activities?”
  • Facebook Surveillance measured with a single item “How often do you look at your partner’s page?” on a scale from ‘never’ to ‘very often’. 

Facebook jealousy

Overall they found that Facebook jealousy scores were higher for females.  Facebook jealousy was also higher for those who scored lower in self-esteem, although jealousy scores were lower for those who indicated a lower commitment to their current relationship. 

In terms of attachments style, the researchers found that anxiously attached individuals indicated a greater amount of Facebook jealousy whereas individuals who were scored higher on avoidant attachment scored lower on Facebook jealousy.   However, they also found that trust predicted Facebook jealousy more than attachment, which suggests that anxious attachment leads to lower levels of trust, which in turn predicts Facebook jealousy. 

Facebook surveillance

In terms of Facebook surveillance behaviour, the researchers found that this was greater for participants who reported lower commitment in their relationships.  As expected they also found that surveillance was positively associated with anxious attachment and negatively associated with avoidant attachment. 

Gender differences

For gender differences, the study found that males looked at their partner’s Facebook page more often than females looked at their male partner’s pages.  Interestingly, however, as mentioned above, males reported lower levels of Facebook jealousy than females, and therefore the researchers speculate that male checking of a partner’s Facebook pages could be more associated with passion than jealousy. 

One further curious gender difference was that when males scored higher in passion, males and females reported looking at each other’s Facebook pages more often, whereas when females were high in passion, males and females reported looking at each other’s Facebook pages less often.  This may be to do with the ways in which males and females express romantic love.

In summary, attachment anxiety and avoidance seem to be related to Facebook jealousy and surveillance, and anxious people experienced Facebook jealousy because they had lower levels of trust for their partners.  One question is whether the characteristics of Facebook have made surveillance commonplace within romantic couples, or whether just like other forms of jealous behaviour such as checking a partner’s emails or phone it only occurs in jealous partners or those in mistrustful relationships.

It may also be the case that partners who express more love for each other find it rewarding to view each other’s updates on social media, and are not using social media simply for the purposes of checking on a partner.  Indeed the viewing of a partner’s social media pages could be indicative of wanting to feel close to them.  Because Facebook surveillance is quite prevalent in passionate and loving partners, we may need to distinguish between positive surveillance which is what relationship partners find rewarding and negative surveillance which may ultimately lead to more destructive relationship behaviour.

References

Joinson, A. N. (2008) ‘“Looking at”, “looking up” or “keeping up with” people? Motives and uses of Facebook.’ In Proceedings of the 26th Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Florence, Italy, April 5-10 2008 1027–1036). New York: ACM Press.

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., Di Castro, G, & Lee, R. A. (2013) ‘Attachment styles as predictors of Facebook-related jealousy and surveillance in romantic relationships’ Personal Relationships, 20, 1-22.

Stern, S. R., & Willis, T. J. (2007) ‘What are teenagers up to online?’ In S. R. Mazarella (Ed.), ‘20 Questions about youth and the media’ 211–224). New York: Peter Lang.