How We Use Social Networks and Why: Part 1

Attachment styles make a difference

Posted Dec 09, 2013

Over the past decade social networking (SN) through sites such as Facebook, has become a ubiquitous—if not entirely positive—part of millions of lives. As a therapist I’ve heard my share of tales of disappointment, and sometimes even outrage, from clients who have felt burned by one or more “friends” they made through SN. I’ve also heard of colleagues who got in trouble at work as a result of their SN postings. On the other hand I have a nephew who has been able to build a substantial network of people who share his interest in caring for abused or abandoned animals. It’s clear to me from his nearly daily posts (and their responses) that he feels connected and supported through SN.

Some questions that have so far gone largely unanswered about social networking include the following:

Who uses social networking, and why?

What insight about myself might help me better understand my own use of social networking? 

What would be important for me to know about the role that social networking can play in other peoples’ lives?

Fortunately some research is beginning to emerge that sheds some valuable light on these questions, and which I believe would be useful for all of us to know. But to put this information into a proper perspective we need to go back, as it were, to the beginning.

Attachment Styles

Attachment has been a subject of major interest for developmental and clinical psychologists for a long time. In the 1990s, Kim Bartholomew and her colleagues developed a simple instrument to measure four different adult attachment styles (Bartholomew, K. & Horowitz, L.M. (1991) Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.). To determine what your own style is, respond to each of the following statements from 7 (agree strongly) to 1 (disagree strongly). Here they are, as described by the authors:

Style A: It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me. 

Style B: I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.

Style C: I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.  

Style D: I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.” 

Most people can identify pretty much with one of these styles, though they may not be at the extreme score of 7.

Attachment Styles and Social Networking

As it turns out these attachment styles relate to how and why people use social networking. In this first blog post we’ll look at the findings from one study that delved into this relationship. This particular study, authored by Doo Young Lee, was published just this year in a journal with the unlikely title (for research on attachment) of Computers in Human Behavior (

Lee studied Facebook usage as reported by 368 men and women between the ages of 19 and 25 who were enrolled as undergraduates in a 4-year college in South Korea (which is quite internet-friendly).He measured the extent to which this group utilized this social networking site, as well as their dominant attachment styles.

Lee refers to a concept called social capital which has been widely used in social science research. Essentially, social capital refers to how many interpersonal connections each of us has. Liu correctly points out that social networking sites like Facebook are one way to build social capital. However, he also defines two different kinds of social capital:

“Bonding social capital builds strong links between like-minded people, such as groups of close friends or families. In contrast, bridging social capital is a pattern of resources that can be accessed through external ties with people. Bridging social capital builds weak, loose, or fragile connections between heterogeneous groups lacking internally cohesive or emotionally close relationships.”

As you might imagine, people who use social networking for bonding purposes are apt to disclose more personal information than those who use social networking to maximize their contacts, for example, to establish and communicate with a network of colleagues. The person who is interested in the bridging type of social capital is not seeking intimacy or connectedness and is less likely to be personally disclosing.

Here is what Lee found:

The more often people utilized social networking the greater was the “social capital” they developed. In other words, greater use of social networks tends to lead to larger social networks. This finding makes intuitive sense and is not surprising.

Men and women with high scores on style D as described above tend to utilize social networks less for bonding than for bridging. Type D’s, in other words, may build social networks, but they do so more to create a network than to seek intimacy or to bond with others based on shared values. They are not, in a word, seeking intimacy.

Type A’s, in contrast, tend to build social networks that are based on bonding with others on the basis of shared values and goals. In other words, type A’s use social networking to build intimacy.

It may strike some people as unusual to think of social networking in terms of intimacy, but if you give it some thought this makes a lot of sense. You will probably agree that the people in your life whom you feel most intimate and bonded with are likely people who share your values, priorities, and goals. That can happen over the Internet as much as it can happen through personal contact.

Lessons to be Learned

The results of the above study can be useful to us on several levels, beginning with getting a handle on our own attachment styles. Beyond that, it can be helpful to keep your style in kind as you venture through the blogosphere in search of connections. As you do so, keep the following questions in kind:

What is my preferred style, and therefore what is my likely motivation for building a social network?

As I consider “friending” people, what do their social networks look like? Does it look like an individual is seeking to bond with others, or more simply to build a bridge of social contacts? 

Is this person’s social network compatible with my own motivations? Am I likely to feel uncomfortable friending someone who seems to be seeking intimacy and bonding, when I am looking to build bridges? Conversely, could I be disappointed, if I am seeking bonding and intimacy, if I friend someone whose profile may be appealing but whose network suggests they are building bridges?

As the old saying goes, “opposites attract,” and this may certainly apply in social networking as well as in any other context. That said, it might still be wise to keep the above perspective in mind, so that we at least know what we might be getting into each time we make that decision to “friend” someone.

In my next blog I will explore some additional research that bears on the relationship between attachment and social networking.

Joseph Nowinski’ next book, Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder will be published next spring. It is available for preorder at 

@2013 by Joseph Nowinski