Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 18, 2020

How Social Media Might Undermine Romantic Relationships

by Orpha de Lenne
Illustration of different men and women holding smartphones with images of boyfriends and girlfriends

Social media continuously exposes us  to other people’s seemingly ideal lives as we are bombarded by attractive selfies, descriptions of exciting parties, and idyllic vacation pictures. Much has been written about the effects of seeing other’s seemingly perfect lives on people’s satisfaction with themselves and their own lives, but my colleagues and I wondered whether social media use might also be related to how people view their romantic relationships.

Specifically, we wondered whether encountering all of those seemingly attractive and happy people on social media can give people the feeling that there are many alternative partners out there. When people think they have plenty of other romantic options, their commitment to their current partner may decrease because it seems like the partner can easily be replaced with a better alternative.

In a study that I conducted with Laurens Wittevronghel, Laura Vandenbosch, and Steven Eggermont, we investigated how frequent exposure to attractive people on social media is linked to people’s commitment to their relationships. We conducted a survey in Belgium among young men and women (18-32 years old), asking them about their social media use, online flirting behaviors, and relationship commitment.

Not surprisingly, participants indicated that they were exposed to many attractive romantic alternatives on social media. Specifically, 36.4% of the respondents reported that they occasionally noticed attractive people on social media, and 19.3% indicated that seeing these attractive people sometimes made them realize that there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

Furthermore, thinking that there are a lot of attractive alternatives was linked to higher levels of online flirting behavior. That is, the more people reported noticing many alternatives on social media, the more they tended to flirt on-line. Fortunately, relatively few participants reported to occasionally flirt with people on social media (3.5%) or communicate with people they might want to date someday (4.3%). Even so, this behavior was not unimportant because participants who often engaged in online flirting were also less committed to maintaining their current relationship.

In addition to online flirting, young adults who regularly encountered tempting alternatives on social media also had a tendency to compare their online love interests to their current partner. Participants reported that, when they saw pictures of attractive alternatives while scrolling through their social media feeds, they sometimes compared their partner to these individuals. On the positive side, we did not find any evidence that comparing one’s partner to the people online was related to lower feelings of commitment. So, even though people compared their partners to others, that didn’t necessarily make them feel less committed to their current relationship.

Our research suggests that using social media may not only give people the impression that there is a large pool of romantic alternatives out there, but it is also linked to flirting behavior,  suggesting a possible threat to people’s romantic relationships.


For Further Reading

de Lenne, O., Wittevronghel, L., Vandenbosch, L., & Eggermont, S. (2019). Romantic relationship commitment and the threat of alternatives on social media. Personal Relationships, 26, 680-693. doi:10.1111/pere.12299

 Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 172–186. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(80)90007-4

 

Orpha de Lenne is a doctoral student (Research Foundation Flanders) in communication sciences at KU Leuven. She studies how media use affects adolescents’ and young adults’ well-being.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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