February 20, 2014

Couples, the Internet, and Social Media

27% of online couples say that the internet has had an impact on their relationship, and most of them say the impact is positive.

Still, one in four cell owners in serious relationships say the phone distracts their spouse or partner when they are together.

Technology plays a more prominent role in the committed relationships of young adults.

WASHINGTON—As technology becomes more deeply integrated into people’s lives, couples are feeling both the positive and negative effects of digital communications tools in their relationships.

Fully 27% of online adults who are married or in committed relationships say that the internet has had an impact on their relationships; and a majority of them say that impact has been positive. However, technology is also seen as a negative source of distraction in some relationships; 25% of cell owners in serious relationships say the phone distracts their spouse or partner when they are alone together.

Technology makes itself felt in many ways in relationships – in how couples communicate, grow closer, plan, fight and make up. A new report from the Pew Research Center looks at how technology matters in the lives of married or partnered adults. Some of the main findings from the report explore the both the good and the bad:

Tech as a source of support

  • 21% of married or partnered adults 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.
  • 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 couples who use the internet have had an argument with their spouse or partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.

Tech as a source of tension

Young adults in serious relationships are more likely than older couples to report that the internet has had an impact on their relationship, but this impact can cut both ways. Many young couples view technology as a way to bring greater intimacy to their relationship, even as it introduces new sources of tension.

  • 45% of online 18-29 year olds in serious relationships say the internet has had an impact on their relationship – 21% say a major impact.
  • 42% of 18-29 year olds with cell phones in serious relationships say their partner has been distracted by their mobile phone while they were together.
  • 41% of online 18-29 year olds in serious relationships felt closer to their partner because of online or text conversations.

“Technology is everywhere and our relationships are no exception,” said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of the report and Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center. “And for younger adults and those in newer relationships, tools such as cell phones and social media were there at the beginning and play a greater role today for good and for ill.”

Digital tool sharing

While most people in serious relationships use various tech tools independently, a subset of couples use email, social media and online calendars together, or share their passwords with each other.

  • 67% of married or partnered internet users share their online passwords with their spouse or partner.
  • 27% of online couples share an email account.
  • 11% of social-media using couples share a social media profile.
  • 11% of couples who use the internet share an online calendar.

“Long partnered couples are more likely to say they share email accounts and social media profiles,” noted Lenhart. “It’s about timing – in many cases these couples were together when they first started using the technology and began using it as unit, while those who have been in a relationship for a shorter period of time were still independent actors when they first set up their accounts.”

Sexting up since 2012

Technology in relationships is not simply limited to coordination or logistics; it now encompasses even more intimate moments. Married and partnered adults are just as likely as singles to say that they have sent a sext – a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video – to someone they know, with nearly one in 10 adults in both groups saying they’ve sent such an image.

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.

About Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. The center studies U.S. politics and policy views; media and journalism; internet and technology; religion and public life; Hispanic trends; global attitudes and U.S. social and demographic trends. All of the center’s reports are available at www.pewresearch.org. Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Media contact: Amanda Lenhart, alenhart@pewresearch.org, (202) 419-4514