Facebook has become cross-generationally ubiquitous over the past decade, and the rise of smartphones, video chats, and an ever-expanding array of integrated social networking services now allows couples to keep the romance alive via Skype, tweet, Instagram, and Google Chat whether they're in the same room or thousands of miles apart. It also allows them to ignore one another in each other's physical presence.
"Not only is social media such as Facebook changing the way we relate to one another, many are also confusing digital intimacy with true intimacy," said Dr. Rachel Needle, a psychologist at the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida. "It has been estimated that Facebook activities contribute to at least 20% of divorce cases."
Dr. Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) of Oxford University, has long been interested in how online social network use affects real-life relationships.
Among other things, Hogan's OII research examines how "media multiplexity,"the ability to communicate through multiple communications channels, affects the strength of relationships in the age of online social media.
Media multiplexity theory was developed back in 2005, before social media websites like Facebook and Twitter began to overtake email, online chat, and phone conversations as major modes of communication. It suggests that the more media channels people use to communicate with each other, and the more often they use them, the stronger their relationships are.
However, said Hogan in a news release, "we are now firmly in the age of digital communication with social media really taking off. We wanted to see if these more diverse communications channels strengthened relationship ties in the digital era."
His findings, presented today at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Harrogate, England, during a symposium called "Social media: the perils and pleasures," suggest the opposite may be true about Internet overuse.
Since 2008, he and several other OII researchers have been collecting survey data from over 24,000 people in heterosexual married couples from 17 European countries for a study funded by eHarmony.
The participants completed online questionnaires administered by Toluna UK, and answered questions about their use of different communication media, including face to face, telephone, mobile phone, email, social network sites, webcams, blogs, virtual worlds, and texting. They also reported their relationship satisfaction on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, a standard clinical measure.
Hogan explained to Medical Daily that all the couples had started their relationships after 1997, had been cohabiting for over a year, and were younger than 65 years old. Those cutoff criteria were chosen to increase the likelihood that participants would be familiar with online social media, which tends to be adopted more fully by younger, more Internet-savvy users.
Survey analysis revealed that people using more media to communicate report no greater relationship satisfaction- in fact, some even reported less satisfaction.
Hogan modeled the number of media used against self-reported relationship satisfaction, and found a positive correlation only until a cutoff point, "after which the increasing complexity of maintaining so many separate communications threads starts to undermine relationship ties."
"By plotting the results of the model we can see that it peaks at around 4-5 media and then drops," he added via email to Medical Daily.
The OII survey doesn't delve too deeply into how social media overuse damages satisfaction in romantic relationships, but experts have much to say on the topic.
In a conversation on NPR's "Weekend Edition" in February, psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell spoke about how spouses can alienate each other with constant social media use on their smartphones or laptops: "You really do need time and attention in order to feel empathy, in order to feel trust, in order to feel closeness. Particularly busy working couples don't know how to turn it off."
"All the time and energy that goes into maintaining a lot of social media can take away from the one-on-one time couples share," Santa Barbara psychotherapist Christina Steinorth told Medical Daily.
Studies have previously suggested that Facebook damages relationships for people with low self-esteem, that having too many Facebook friends can increase anxiety and lower self-control, and that constant usage breeds narcissism and encourages frustration, envy and low self-esteem in certain users. Oh, and the urge to check Facebook can be more tempting than alcohol, cigarettes, or sex.
"Airings of marital discord- even bliss- beyond a subtle degree often can lead to resentment, gossip or mistrust," said digital strategist Dino Baskovic.
None of those are particularly conducive to building a strong relationship with a romantic partner, especially when users overshare personal details with their networks or flirt with others without their significant others knowing.
"It's also very easy to get swept up into a fantasy life in social media which may make it tempting for individuals to stray from their committed romantic relationship," Steinorth explained. "People typically report very flattering things about themselves on social media--their best photos to the best moments of their lives...when this happens it can lead someone to think 'Hey, that person is better looking and more interesting than my partner...' and lead to a grass is greener mindset."
Dr. Wendy Walsh, resident expert at DatingAdvice.com, advises setting strict boundaries to display unity and limit temptations against what she calls "love attention deficit disorder." "Put your wedding photo up there. Talk in "we's" instead of "I" online. And make sure your spouse is your Facebook friend so she/he can read your posts. Also, shut off private messaging or give your spouse your password."
Of course, like any technology, online social media is what you make of it. The alarmist studies may draw more attention, but other research highlights positive findings like Facebook's power to boost self-worth, deliver good news, fight depression risk among the socially isolated, reduce loneliness, and physiologically decrease stress.
Self-awareness, regular real-life communication, and set boundaries are key in deciding how social media overuse might be affecting your and your partner's relationship satisfaction.
"It is important to step back and ask yourself, you know, how is this working for us," said avid social media user Alexandra Samuel on NPR about the integration of her marriage with Rob Cottingham with their online presence.
Relationship expert April Braswell told Medical Daily that "to think that using Online Social Media in place of the intimacy they foster and sustain in person would be an egregious error. Couples still crave the physical contact of being face to face with their loved one. The digital device cannot give them a hug or wipe away a tear."
"Social Media can be great for the couples to share their lives more immediately with more of their extended family. However, when it comes to nurturing the loving intimacy of their relationship, some things are best done in person."
In future research, Hogan hopes to expand the OII study's scope to unmarried, gay, and long-term cohabiting couples.