Barbara Markway Ph.D.

Living the Questions

Are Your Texts and Tweets Hurting Your Relationships?

New research explores the consequences of superficial sharing.

Posted Mar 11, 2015

csp23027779/CanStockPhoto
Source: csp23027779/CanStockPhoto

We have more opportunities than ever to stay in touch with each other. Thanks to social media status updates, instant messaging, and texting we typically know a lot about our friends. This can be a good thing. We feel close, connected, and supported. But there’s a flipside.

A new research study1 out of the University of Arizona explored the potential negative consequences of social sharing across different types of electronic media. In particular, the researchers looked at what they call “superficial self-disclosures,” which might be things like:

  •  I wish people would quit complaining about...
  •  Vegan pizza for lunch. Yum!
  •  Proud mommy moment: fill in the blank.
  • Long, stressful day.
  • I'm at Target.

The researchers wanted to know: How do these "superficial self-disclosures" impact a relationship? Do they keep people connected? Or do they drive them apart?

This innovative study included 199 people who were each asked to select a friend who was not a relative, not a romantic partner, and not someone with whom he or she lived. The friend was rated as a close friend, distant friend, or best friend, and “closeness” as a variable was then controlled for in the study. The friends’ sex and sex of the dyad (same/mixed) was also controlled for. If you haven’t had a statistics class, a control variable is one that is held constant in order to assess the relationship between the variables in question. Because relationship closeness and gender are factors known to influence self-disclosure, they were measured and statistically factored into the study.

The research study participants looked through all of their messages from the identified friend from the previous seven days. They looked at five means of communication: mobile phone calls, text messaging via cell phone, instant messaging, status updates on social media, and email. They estimated what percentage of the messages received involved self-disclosure and then, what percentage of the self-disclosures were superficial in nature. The participants then filled out rating scales asking them to assess how much they liked the person (for example, “My friend is one of the most likable people I know.”), how satisfied they were with the relationship (for example, “How well does your friend meet your needs?”), and how likely they were to offer the person social support (for example, “I would listen to my friend when he/she needs to talk.”)

The researchers hypothesized that the results would be mediated by “perceived costs.” For example, receiving too many trivial updates might be an imposition on one's time:  listening to, reading, and then possibly replying to a friend’s self-disclosure requires you to possibly drop what you’re doing. You may also feel an emotional cost in that you have to listen and respond supportively to something that might be mundane. Relationship “costs” were measured by having participants rate the following statements when thinking about their friend:

1.     My friend wastes my time talking about his/her life.

2.     My friend shares too much with me.

3.     My friend expects me to be more understanding of his/her concerns than I would like to be.

4.     My friend expects me to put his/her problems before my own problems and concerns.

5.     My friend is demanding of my time.

So what did the study show?

Overall, superficial self-disclosure can impact your relationships. 

For people who received a small number of superficial disclosures from their friend, there was no impact on the relationship. In other words, it was no big deal to get a few trivial updates.

BUT…

For people who received a large volume of disclosures, along with a high percentage of these being superficial disclosures, negative consequences ensued.  The person rated the relationship as less satisfactory and indicated that they liked the friend less. Interestingly, they weren't any less likely to offer social support. The authors of the study write, “Although superficial disclosures might serve to undermine perceptions of one’s relationship, they may not be enough of a burden to lead the respondent to abandon their responsibilities as a friend.”

The researchers caution that the magnitude of the results did not suggest that the study participants were ready to terminate the friendship over too many mundane updates. However, given that the study only looked at the past seven days, it is possible that over time there would be a cumulative, negative effect.

What are the important takeaways?

Superficial self-disclosure is not inherently bad—it's only a problem when this type of communication occurs at high levels.

Be mindful of the big picture of your relationship. Think about whether you need to share particular information, and also how much information you’ve shared with this person in the past.

Try to maintain a balance between intimate and trivial self-disclosures. If sharing the everyday details of your life starts to dominate the communication, it may hinder your ability to sustain long-term, fulfilling friendships.

1Rains, S. A., Brunner, S. R., & Oman, K. (2014). Self-disclosure and new communication technologies: The implications of receiving superficial self-disclosures from friends. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1–20. 

Dr. Barbara Markway
Source: Dr. Barbara Markway

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