Social media websites like Facebook and Instagram were designed to bring people together. And despite all of the political battles, advertising, and information-sharing, for many people, these sites still function as a way to keep up with friends and family. But what exactly are we hoping to get out of these connections?
With the large network of social media contacts the typical person has, social media can be a way to get validation and support from others. For example, if you post about getting a promotion at work, it can be gratifying to see the "likes" piling up. Or if you're sharing bad news, you might take comfort from comments – or even emojis – expressing sympathy.
However, there are serious limits to how personal and intimate your social media interactions are likely to be. While social media allows you to connect with large numbers of people, it also keeps them at a safe distance. That means it can give people the ability to maintain their social lives without getting too close to anyone. In a recently published paper reviewing the research on social media and relationships, Lynne Marie Stöven and Philipp Yorck Herzberg used the idea that social media can both provide comfort and support, but also help us to keep people at a distance, to understand why people with different attachment styles might gravitate toward these sites and how they use them.
What is attachment style?
Attachment style refers to our typical way of relating to our close others, that is, our attachments to other people. While the idea of attachment originated with developmental psychologists studying parent-child bonds, Hazan and Shaver posited that such bonds exist in relationships between adults as well. Attachment has two dimensions:
- Anxiety over abandonment (sometimes called attachment anxiety): The extent to which someone is worried that other people will not love them enough or that relationship partners will leave them.
- Avoidance of intimacy (sometimes called attachment avoidance): The extent to which someone avoids getting emotionally close to others.
Healthy, secure attachment means having little abandonment anxiety and being comfortable with emotional intimacy. In most studies on adult attachment, researchers measure these two dimensions which can combine to create different types of attachment style. Thus, an individual could be securely attached as describe above or can have one of three different forms of insecure attachment.
Those with a preoccupied attachment style have high levels of abandonment anxiety, but they are perfectly comfortable with intimacy. People with this type of attachment tend to be needy and clingy. People with a dismissive attachment style avoid intimacy but aren't worried about being abandoned. Dismissive individuals tend to be uncomfortable when people try to get too close, and they avoid close relationships because they prefer to be independent. Finally, those with a fearful attachment style experience both high levels of abandonment anxiety and intimacy avoidance. Like dismissive people, they are uncomfortable getting too close and avoid intimate connections with others. But unlike their dismissive counterparts, fearful people avoid intimacy because they don’t trust other people to come through for them and are afraid of being let down – not because they prefer to be independent.
How does attachment style relate to social media use?
Stöven and Herzberg reviewed 17 studies on attachment style and social media use. They found that people with higher levels of abandonment anxiety tended to use social media as a way to increase their feelings of belonging and to feel well-liked by other people. They were also more likely to seek out feedback and attention from other people, and this was especially true when they were experiencing negative emotions like sadness or stress. For them, social media was a way to seek reassurance that others like and care about them, especially when they're down.
People high in intimacy avoidance, on the other hand, showed the opposite pattern of behavior. They were especially unlikely to look to others for feedback. In fact, one study found that those high in attachment avoidance were more likely to interact with celebrities on social media, thus choosing a social situation where intimate connections are impossible.
This pattern was also observed in how much time people spent on social media. Those with anxious attachment styles tended to spend more time on social media, while those high in avoidance spent less time. People high in attachment anxiety also showed a number of problematic behaviors. They were more likely to overshare, engage in impulsive behavior, and use social media in a way that was compulsive or intrusive. Generally, this occurred because those higher in attachment anxiety also tend to have lower self-esteem and experience greater psychological distress.
One behavior that was associated with both intimacy avoidance and attachment anxiety was a desire to strategically present a more positive image of oneself online, by showing off the best and concealing less desirable characteristics. Although the studies didn't examine it directly, it's possible that this behavior was motivated by a desire to be liked among those who were anxiously attached, and a desire to keep others at a distance for the avoidantly attached.
Does social media connect us or disconnect us from others?
Looking at social media use through the lens of attachment style shows us how people may use social media to fulfill social needs they feel are not met in their offline lives. Those most concerned about being unloved or abandoned by others seek out support and reassurance online, especially when they’re feeling down. For some, they may find solace. However, there is other research that shows that negative social media posts are perceived unfavorably and make the poster less likable. This suggests that these anxiously attached people may not be receiving the reassurance they're seeking, and it may even backfire. This desire to connect could also lead to obsessive use that interferes with their offline lives, as found in some of the studies described earlier.
While people high in intimacy avoidance might use social media rather than more intimate modes of communication to interact with others, the research didn't show evidence of that. Avoidance was associated with less social media interaction. However, the finding that they interacted with celebrities more does provide some evidence for this idea. Perhaps they are replacing connections where there is reciprocity – an expectation for them to give back – with one-sided social interactions in which nothing is expected of them in return.
Social media allows us to avoid intimacy if we choose, but it also gives us opportunities to seek it. We may, however, not necessarily achieve it.