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Facebook privacy settings and jealousy

“Please think of a serious committed romantic relationship that you have had in the past, which you currently have, or that you would like to have. Imagine that you discover a photograph of your serious romantic partner with another person of the opposite sex on Facebook. Imagine that you discover this when trying to login to your own Facebook account, and you notice that your romantic partner’s account is still logged in. At this point, you discover that his/her photos set to be viewable by:

  1. All Facebook friends
  2. All Facebook users
  3. Him or herself

In addition, your romantic partner has

  1. No photos of the two of you together
  2. Few photos of the two of you together
  3. Many photos of the two of you together

posted on Facebook.’’

The nine possible combinations of this scenario (1:1, 1:2 etc) was presented to nine different groups, consisting of 68 male and 158 female undergraduates with an average age of 19. In other words, the participants in this study imagined seeing their partner’s pictures and the specific Facebook privacy settings for these pictures. As can be seen above, the study varied the number of photos of the participant and his or her partner together on Facebook, and also the privacy settings that participants thought their partner was utilising. Each participant in each of the groups were asked to state how jealous, angry, disgusted or hurt they would feel in response to the scenario with which they were presented, using a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely). The aim of the study was to assess whether their partner’s supposed Facebook settings would have an effect on the emotional responses participants would report (Muscanell, Guadagno, Rice & Murphy, 2013).

The researchers predicted that:

  • Participants would experience more intense negative emotions when they thought that their partner had their Facebook photos set to ‘private’.
  • Participants would report more intense negative emotions when they thought that their partner had no photos of them as a couple on Facebook.

The predictions made by the researchers were based on the idea that hiding Facebook posts using privacy settings or not displaying partner photos could cause jealousy, anger hurt or disgust in two ways. Firstly, it could be seen to be an indication that one partner is concealing something from the other, maybe even hiding an additional potential romantic interest. Secondly, it could be a sign that one of the couple are not acknowledging their current relationship.

Either way, the above two possibilities would seem indicative of someone trying to hide something about their current relationship on Facebook. So what did Muscanell et al (2013) discover?

Negative Reactions

  • Firstly, the researchers found that overall females reported stronger feelings of jealousy, anger, hurt and disgust to all of the scenarios above than did males. This finding replicates that of Sagarin & Guadagno (2004) who also found that females report greater feelings of romantic jealousy overall than males.
  • Secondly, they found that when participants imagined that their romantic partner had no photos of them as a couple on Facebook, they reported feeling more jealous, angry, hurt and disgusted. This according to the researchers may lead to more intense reactions because it suggests that a partner may be attempting to hide their relationship status on Facebook, or not acknowledging that they are in a relationship.
  • Similarly, participants in this study reported experiencing more intense negative emotions, when they discovered that their romantic partner had their Facebook privacy settings switched to private (only viewable by themselves). As above, negative emotions are experienced probably because the privacy settings indicate that their romantic partner is not prepared to share their relationship status and is maybe even attempting to hide this from their other Facebook friends.
  • Finally, females felt more hurt than males when they believed that their romantic partner had only a few couple photos on Facebook, especially when the privacy settings were switched to viewable just by other Facebook friends. Females generally experience a greater amount of negative emotion when they believe that other people can see a lack of official evidence of them being in a relationship. Furthermore, females desire a degree of approval from others and tend to define themselves in terms of others, (i.e. ‘somebody’s partner, my partner). Indeed females have more of tendency to base their self-concept on what others think of them. Accordingly, they experience negative emotions to a greater degree if their relationship is not advertised publicly (Magnuson & Dundes, 2008).

Does Facebook use Increase the Potential for Jealousy?

The way in which we use Facebook is visible to others, resulting in a certain lack of privacy in interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, Facebook is now often used to make romantic relationships ‘Facebook Official’, and any secrecy or attempts to hide or not advertise this fact by one partner may be upsetting to the other.

In romantic relationships, jealousy occurs when there is a perceived threat (imagined or real) to the relationship triggered by an outside party. It could be that one partner displays or proclaims interest in someone else, or that one partner perhaps receives attention from an outside party. Because social networking has made our lives so much more open and transparent, it is quite conceivable that this has increased the propensity for jealousy.

In addition to the above finding, Facebook can also have the effect of inducing negative emotions in another way. For example, we may view ambiguous information (such as a photo or post of one’s partner) and then interpret this in a non-ambiguous way, as if it poses a threat (Muscanell, Guadagno, Rice & Murphy, 2013).

An earlier study by Muise, Christofides and Desmarais (2009), examining the relationship between Facebook use and jealousy, found that those who reported spending more time on Facebook, also reported increased surveillance of their partner’s profile with a consequent increase in jealousy. One likely reason for this is that increased time on Facebook means that individuals are exposed to viewing more ambiguous relationship information about their partner, and it is this exposure to the ambiguous information which leads to jealousy.

Overall, it seems likely that privacy settings which attempt to either hide a relationship status or compromise total transparency between romantic partners can cause suspicion and lead to negative reactions.

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  • Magnuson, M. J., & Dundes, L. (2008) ‘Gender differences in ‘‘social portraits’’ reflected in MySpace profiles.’ CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 239–241.
  • Muscanell, N. L., Guadagno, R. E., Rice, L. & Murphy, S. (2013) ‘Don't it make my brown eyes green? An analysis of Facebook use and romantic jealousy.’ Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 16(4), 237-242.
  • Muise A, Christofides E, Desmarais S. (2009) ‘More information that you ever wanted: does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy?’ CyberPsychology and Behaviour, 12, 441–444.
  • Sagarin B.S. & Guadagno R.E. (2004) ‘Sex differences in the con-texts of extreme jealousy.’ Personal Relationships, 11, 319–328.