February 11, 2014

Couples, the Internet, and Social Media

How American couples use digital technology to manage life, logistics, and emotional intimacy within their relationships

Summary of Findings

The internet, cell phones, and social media have become key actors in the life of many American couples— the 66% of adults who are married or in committed relationships. Couples use technology in the little and large moments. They negotiate over when to use it and when to abstain. A portion of them quarrel over its use and have had hurtful experiences caused by tech use. At the same time, some couples find that digital tools facilitate communication and support. A majority of those in couples maintain their own separate email and social media accounts, though a smaller number report sharing accounts and calendars. And fully two-thirds of couples share passwords.  The broad statistical picture looks like this:

The overall impact of technology on long term relationships

  • 10% of internet users who are married or partnered say that the internet has had a “major impact” on their relationship, and 17% say that it has had a “minor impact.” Fully 72% of married or committed online adults said the internet has “no real impact at all” on their partnership.
  • 74% of the adult internet users who report that the internet had an impact on their marriage or partnership say the impact was positive. Still, 20% said the impact was mostly negative, and 4% said it was both good and bad.

Tech as a source of support and communication

  • 25% of married or partnered adults who text have texted their partner when they were both home together.
  • 21% of cell owners or internet users in a committed relationship have felt closer to their spouse or partner because of exchanges they had online or via text message.
  • 9% have resolved an argument with their partner online or by text message that they were having difficulty resolving in person.

Tech as a source of tension

  • 25% of cell phone owners in a marriage or partnership have felt their spouse or partner was distracted by their cell phone when they were together.
  • 8% of internet users in a committed relationship have had an argument with their spouse or partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.
  • 4% of internet users in a committed relationship have gotten upset at something that they found out their spouse or partner was doing online.

Young adults more likely to report that technology has an impact—good and bad.

Young adults are more likely to report feeling closer to their spouse or partner thanks to technology

  • 41% of 18-29 year olds in serious relationships have felt closer to their partner because of online or text message conversations.
  • 23% of 18-29 year olds in serious relationships report resolving an argument using digital tools that they were having trouble resolving in person.

At the same time, young adults are more likely to report tension in their relationships over technology use

  • 42% of cell-owning 18-29 year olds in serious relationships say their partner has been distracted by their mobile phone while they were together (25% of all couples say this).
  • 18% of online 18-29 year olds have argued with a partner about the amount of time one of them spent online (compared with 8% of all online couples).
  • 8% say they have been upset by something their partner was doing online (compared with 4% of all online couples).

Overall, young adults are more likely to report that the internet has had an impact on their relationship

  • 45% of internet users ages 18-29 in serious relationships say the internet has had an impact on their relationship, while just one in ten online adults 65 and older say the same.

Shared passwords:

  • 67% of internet users in a marriage or committed relationship have shared the password to one or more of their online accounts with their spouse or partner.

Shared accounts:

  • 27% of internet users in a marriage or committed relationship have an email account that they share with their partner. Older adults and those who have been in their relationship for longer than ten years are especially likely to share an email account.
  • 11% of these couples have an online calendar that they share. Sharing of online calendars tends to be most prevalent among couples in their logistics-intensive middle-age period (i.e. mid-20s through mid-40s).
  • 11% of partnered or married adults who use social networking sites share a social media profile.

As a broad pattern, those who have been married or partnered ten years or less have digital communication and sharing habits that differ substantially from those who have been partnered longer. Some of this is about timing— technology a decade ago was squarely in the pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone era, and just ten years into the development of the commercially popular Web. Those who were already together as a couple at the advent of a new platform or technology were a bit more likely to jump on together, as a unit, while those who begin relationships with their own existing accounts and profiles tend to continue to use them separately as individuals.

Long-term couples tend to view and utilize technology quite differently compared with those who have been together for a shorter period of time

Couples who have been together for 10 years or less show different patterns of technology usage in the context of their relationship compared with those who have been together for a longer period of time. Couples who have been together for a decade or less—also typically younger than those who have been together for longer—are much more likely to have used dating services or the internet to meet their partner, to use technology to help with the logistics and communication in their relationship, and to report that the internet had an impact on their relationship. Adults who are long-partnered use technology in their relationship, but are more likely to use some of it together—by sharing email addresses and social media profiles as a couple.

Sexting among adults is up since 2012

Technology in relationships is not just limited to coordination and logistics, it now encompasses even the more intimate moments. Sexting, or sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photos and videos via cell phone, is practiced by couples and singles alike.

  • 9% of adult cell owners have sent a sext of themselves to someone else, up from 6% of cell owners who said this in 2012.
  • 20% of cell owners have received a sext of someone else they know on their phone, up from 15% who said this in 2012.
  • 3% of cell owners have forwarded a sext to someone else – unchanged since 2012.
  • Married and partnered adults are just as likely as those not in a relationship to say they have sent sexts; single adults are more likely to report receiving and forwarding such images or videos.

About this survey

This report is based on the findings of a survey on Americans’ use of the internet. The results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from April 17 to May 19, 2013, among a sample of 2,252 adults, age 18 and older. Telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (1,125) and cell phone (1,127, including 571 without a landline phone). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. For results based on married or partnered adults (n=1,428), the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points and for cell phone owners (n=2,076) the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.