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Attachment

What Attachment to Social Media May Reveal About One's Childhood

How attachment theory may help predict digital communication patterns.

Key points

  • Anxious attachment is associated with greater problematic social media usage, while avoidant styles are associated with less problematic usage.
  • In a study of over 400 university students in China, only anxious attachment styles predicted social media addiction.
  • Those with avoidant attachment styles may find the control over the "when" and "how" of digital interactions rewarding.

There are many psychology-related jokes. "If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother" is sometimes dubiously attributed to Sigmund Freud, but it is certainly the title of a book on complex family dynamics1.

Whatever you think of psychological jokes, and whatever you think about psychodynamic theory, childhood experiences do generate persistent behavioural patterns. Some of the key patterns learned in childhood concern how we relate to others—our attachment styles. These patterns can be adaptive and beneficial, or maladaptive and harmful.

Over the last few years, research has revealed that attachment styles are related to social media usage—this should not be surprising, given these behavioural patterns have great generality across people’s lives.

Understanding attachment theory

Following Freud, theorists have investigated the impact of early experiences on adult behaviour—often focusing on how formative experiences affect attachment styles. Attachment theory has its roots in studies of animal behaviour, such as those of Harlow2, and investigations of the dynamic unconscious in humans, such as those of Klein3. However, two major contributors to contemporary attachment theory have relevance to understanding people’s relationships to their digital devices: John Bowlby4 and Mary Ainsworth5. From their work grows the understanding that adults display different approaches to relationships, which may be secure and healthy, or insecure and problematic, and these relationships are also seen in their digital communications.

Insecure attachment—to people or devices—has two main variants: "anxious/preoccupied" and "avoidant/dismissive." Anxious attachment styles involve a great need for approval, safety, and support, often accompanied by abandonment fears. Anxiously attached individuals prioritise relationships, but worry their loved ones are not committed. In contrast, those with avoidant attachment styles dislike relying on others, or being depended upon by others; they believe they are self-sufficient, and do not need others or social support. So, what does the literature on the association between these different attachment styles and social media use tell us?

Attachment styles and social media

The basic relationship between attachment style and social media can be illustrated by the findings of a large study conducted in England6. Over 1,000 young people (17-25 years old) answered questions about their digital use and their attachment styles. The results showed that both insecure attachment styles were implicated in the development of social media use—but in quite different ways to one another. Anxious styles were associated with greater problematic usage, but avoidant styles were associated with less problematic usage of social media. These results have been corroborated across different cultures. For example, in a study of over 400 university students in China7, only anxious attachment styles predicted social media addiction.

Why are those showing anxious attachment at risk of social media addiction? Social media may allow them to maintain connections with many people, to communicate almost constantly with the object of their affections, and to reduce fears of missing out on a connection8. Perhaps the distance of the digital relationship also reduces some of the perceived risks of real social interactions9. Thus, the anxiously attached are at most risk from digital devices—and those are the people you will see hyper-vigilantly checking their phones, and frantically texting, messaging, and using social media.

Digital dependence is rarer for the avoidantly attached than for the anxiously attached, but that is not to say that the avoidantly attached never become digitally dependent. Avoidantly attached people may show social media addiction when they have other problems, like anxiety, depression, or emotional dysregulation6-8, and such problems are not uncommon for this maladaptive style. However, social media can serve an important function for these individuals, which manifests in a different pattern and type of usage to that seen with the anxiously attached. While a disposition to avoid social connection generally reduces digital usage, the avoidantly attached may find the control over the "when" and "how" of digital interactions rewarding, especially compared to real interactions. This level of control may satisfy their need for autonomy9. If this reward becomes very intense, it can create problematic usage patterns. The illusion of control may indulge a need for positive, independent, and even somewhat aggressive, self-presentation—this can be a very risky path to take. Thus, for the avoidantly attached, it’s not necessarily the quantity of usage, but its nature, that becomes problematic.

These suggestions about the amount and nature of social media use by the insecurely attached have been supported in a study of 300 young social media users9. This report found that the feeling of being connected, and the need to self-present, were both drivers of the way attachment styles led to social media use. However, the relationships were quite different for anxious and avoidant styles. The feeling of being related to people was an important motivator of digital communication for those with anxious attachment, and led to digital overuse. In contrast, if those with avoidant attachment styles felt "related" to others through digital media, they would stop using those devices. For these individuals, their digital use was predicted by a need for autonomy—the more empowered they felt through digital communication, the more they used the technology.

Attachment styles and digital dependency are intergenerational

Attachment style and, hence, digital dependency, may be intergenerational, research suggests. A study has examined the impact of parental attachment styles, derived from their relationship with their own parents, on the digital behaviours of their children10. Nearly 400 young people and their parents answered questions about their emotional relationships to those close to them. If either parent was anxiously attached, then their children were also anxiously attached; although only fathers’ avoidant attachment style predicted this style in the children (it’s not always your mother, it turns out!). However, the mothers’ anxious attachment style was strongly associated with the children’s social media overuse, through creating anxious attachment in the children (among other things). Although the fathers’ avoidant attachment style did create psychological problems for the children (depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, among them), it did not directly shape their social media dependence.

All in all, the way people use their digital devices may reveal information about them—and the research suggests that might include clues about their relationship with their parents. Constant checking and use may be signs of being anxiously attached, or of having an anxiously attached mother. Being somewhat terse (or even rude) in digital communications could be a sign of an avoidant attachment style. One final thing to consider—if usage patterns of digital devices reveal something about attachment, what does not having a mobile phone say about your relationship with your parents?

References

1. Sweeney, J. (2014). If it's not one thing, it's your mother. London: Bloomsbury Press.

2. Harlow, H.F. (1961). The development of affectional patterns in infant monkeys.

3. Klein, M. (1930). The importance of symbol-formation in the development of the ego. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 11, 24-39.

4. Bowlby, J. (1998). Attachment and loss (No. 3). Random House.

5. Ainsworth, M.D. (1964). Patterns of attachment behavior shown by the infant in interaction with his mother. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 51-58.

6. Worsley, J.D., McIntyre, J.C., Bentall, R.P., & Corcoran, R. (2018). Childhood maltreatment and problematic social media use: The role of attachment and depression. Psychiatry Research, 267, 88-93.

7. Liu, C., & Ma, J. L. (2019). Adult attachment style, emotion regulation, and social networking sites addiction. Frontiers in Psychology, 2352.

8. Blackwell, D., Leaman, C., Tramposch, R., Osborne, C., & Liss, M. (2017). Extraversion, neuroticism, attachment style and fear of missing out as predictors of social media use and addiction. Personality and Individual Differences, 116, 69-72.

9. Chen, A. (2019). From attachment to addiction: The mediating role of need satisfaction on social networking sites. Computers in Human Behavior, 98, 80-92.

10. Arikan, G., Acar, I.H., & Ustundag-Budak, A.M. (2022). A two-generation study: The transmission of attachment and young adults’ depression, anxiety, and social media addiction. Addictive Behaviors, 124, 107109.

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