Is Facebook the Place to Talk About Your Breakup?
Would you gain more support by sharing bad news in person?
Posted Jun 14, 2019
Over 2 billion people use Facebook each month, and with good reason. The site connects far more people than would be able to interact regularly in person or otherwise offline. Many users view this social media as a way to solicit and receive support from large numbers of people. Both in person and online, self-disclosure can be an important way of forging intimacy in relationships.
Yet, a recent study has shown that sharing highly personal and negatively-valenced information online can make others uncomfortable. In addition, for the most serious or potentially upsetting types of intimate disclosures, most people prefer that others share these offline, if at all.
For this study, 390 participants ranging in age from 18 to 73 completed measures assessing personality, self-esteem, social desirability, and Facebook usage. Participants were presented with three simulated high-intimacy, negatively-valenced Facebook posts modeled on those in an actual Facebook newsfeed. The content of the posts were a relationship breakup, which had the lowest negative valence of the three posts; the disclosure of a close relative's cancer diagnosis, which was considered to have a medium-level negative valence; and the revelation of a close friend’s suicide. This last post was considered to have the most negative valence of the three.
For each scenario, participants were presented the same range of options for interacting with the post that they would if they were on Facebook, including not interacting at all; responding with the “like,” “sad,” “surprised,” or “angry” emoticons; or writing a comment a comment box. Participants also indicated their level of comfort with each post, ranging from “not at all comfortable” to “extremely comfortable.” Participants were also asked to indicate how likely they themselves would be to disclose each of the aforementioned types of scenarios.
Likelihood of Self-Disclosure
The research revealed that overall, participants were significantly more likely to disclose a relationship breakup online (the least negatively-valenced information) than either a friend’s suicide or a serious health issue. Participants were more likely to disclose online a friend’s suicide than a family member's health threat, however. In general, those in the 40-plus age group were less likely than younger participants to disclose negatively-valenced, high intimacy information either online or offline.
In terms of offline disclosures, participants were also significantly more likely to reveal a relationship breakup (again, the least negatively-valenced option) than either a friend’s suicide or a serious health issue. Regardless of the type of scenario, however, participants were significantly more likely to disclose these types of information offline rather than online.
Comfort Level with Others’ Disclosures
In general, participants reported being more comfortable with others’ offline rather than online disclosures of negatively valenced information. The 40-plus age group was also significantly more comfortable with others’ offline disclosures of suicide or health threats than younger participants were — even though as a group, they were less likely to disclose this information themselves.
Personality, Disclosure of Negative Information, and Reactions to Others’ Posts
Only two dimensions of personality — emotional stability and openness to experience — were significantly correlated with posting about a relationship breakup. This correlation was negative, indicating that greater emotional stability and openness to experience were associated with being less likely to post about a relationship breakup.
Although there were no significant relationships between personality factors and participants’ degree of comfort with others’ online disclosures of negative, intimate content, there was a significant relationship between participants’ levels of agreeableness, emotional stability, openness, and self-esteem and their increased comfort with others' offline disclosures
Finally, having a higher degree of agreeableness was associated with a greater likelihood of interacting with others’ posts in some way whether via liking, emoticons, or comments.
To summarize, the results of this small study found that people tend to be more comfortable disclosing highly intimate, negatively-valenced information offline, rather than online. This goes for both posting about one’s own information as well as viewing others’ posts. With regard to age, users age 40 and over were both less likely to disclose highly intimate, negative information either online or offline, but were also more comfortable with other people’s offline disclosures than were participants in the youngest age group (25 and younger). Greater emotional stability was linked to decreased likelihood of posting about a breakup online; greater agreeableness was linked to increased likelihood of interacting with others’ posts in some way.
As others have correctly pointed out, there is a limit to the conclusions one can draw from a single, small study. This particular study was not designed to examine to what extent it can still be helpful for some to post intimate, negatively-valenced disclosures on Facebook or other social media. In particular, those users who have limited offline support may find that even if a portion of their online social network is uncomfortable with such posts, the support they receive from these posts is worth the potential social costs, such as others not engaging with the posts.
Another issue this study did not address is the difference between sharing highly personal, but distressing information in a private Facebook group aimed at providing specific types of support (such as a cancer support group page, or a page dedicated to supporting an ill family member or friend) versus sharing distressing personal information with the entirety of one's network. Arguably, most Facebook users' friend networks are comprised of people who range from being close confidants to those with whom the user has almost no emotional or personal connection. Users who join groups aimed at providing a specific type of support may be more likely to both solicit and receive needed support — as well as support others — but the current study was not designed to shed light on the above.
There is certainly value in connecting with others both online and offline. In general, sharing something of ourselves can help create intimacy in relationships and let others know when support is needed. That said, sharing highly personal, highly negatively-valenced information online may make some Facebook connections uncomfortable and therefore less rather than more likely to interact with the information in a supportive way.
The current study found that older, rather than younger, connections, as well as those who are by nature more agreeable, may be more comfortable providing needed support, even if they themselves are less likely to disclose negatively-valenced personal information.
So, should one avoid posting personal but negatively-valenced content online? That is really up to the individual. It is worth noting whether doing so results in your receiving the support you desire from the people from whom you hope to receive it. The other key is that most healthy relationships involve reciprocity — in general, it's probably worth striving for a balance between receiving and giving. And those who do have access to offline support may find that reaching out in a more personal way might generate support that would otherwise be limited or inaccessible solely via online posts.
Finally, even if online posts generate supportive comments or post engagement, this alone may not be sufficient to help someone through a difficult time. Those struggling with how to deal with negative events and the often distressing emotions that such events generate are encouraged to seek offline support via close friends, family, and close community members, and to consider finding a qualified mental health professional.
For referrals to a qualified therapist, see the Psychology Today Therapist Directory
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Saling, L. L., Cohen, D. B., & Cooper, D. (2019). Not close enough for comfort: Facebook users eschew high intimacy negative disclosures. Personality and Individual Differences, 142, 103-109.