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The Dark Side of Sharing on Facebook

How self and partner disclosure online affects intimacy and satisfaction.

A lot has been written recently about the breach of privacy on Facebook and the negative consequences of oversharing. Most of it was focused on the implications for individuals. Turns out there are also negative consequences for people's close relationships.

For years, study after study showed that self-disclosure is great for one's relationships. For example, this analysis of over 40 studies showed that people who engage in disclosures tend to be more liked, people disclose more to those who they initially like, and people like others as a result of having disclosed to them. Based on that analysis and others, self-disclosure seems to be good for close relationships. Most of these studies, however, were done on offline disclosure. What happens when disclosure is done online?

Bruce Mars/Pexels License
Sharing online? Include your partner
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels License

When interacting online, for example via Facebook, users can share detailed information with large audiences—a phenomenon that typically doesn't happen offline and in-person. In fact, oversharing is a major issue related to Facebook, as Facebook seems to be making a lot of money from people's tendency to overshare, with little regard to the consequences. There are many other differences between in-person disclosure and disclosure via Facebook, and there is relatively little research done on the consequences of such online disclosure.

To fill the gap, in five studies done with my colleagues Juwon Lee and Andy Miller, we examined the consequences of online disclosure on people's intimacy and relationship satisfaction.

Overall, we found that disclosing or sharing information online can do more harm to romantic relationships than good. We did, however, find a way to counteract the negative effects—by including your partner in your posts.

Our research is the first of its kind to systematically examine how different circumstances can affect whether someone perceives a loved one's online disclosure to be positive or negative. We compared how posting personal information online affected intimacy and satisfaction in online and offline contexts, romantic relationships and friendships, and when the partner posted about themselves versus the relationship as a whole.

We found that when one person frequently shares personal information with a large group on social media, it negatively impacts her partner's satisfaction and feelings of intimacy in the relationship. A partner who finds out about an important event or some other personal information like everyone else by reading about it on Facebook is likely to feel left out or see herself as less special. The exclusivity that was there during in-person interaction is gone.

However, when people include their significant other in their post, perhaps by confirming a relationship status online or posting a photo together, it increases feelings of intimacy and satisfaction. Including your partner can validate the relationship and make the partner more likely to see the post as caring and inclusive.

The case for friendships was a bit different; people didn't show the same negative outcomes when a friend self-disclosed online. We think that this, again, has something to with exclusivity, which is higher in romantic as compared to platonic relationships.

Sharing our feelings and daily experiences on social media is a way to stay in contact with friends and family. However, it is important that we understand how our usage of new technologies affects our personal relationships. Make sure to include your partner, or better yet, talk to them in person before posting for everyone to see.

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