October 1, 2015

Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships

Chapter 4: Social Media and Romantic Relationships

Many Teens View Social Media and Text Messaging as a Space for Connection, Emotional Support – and Occasional Jealousy – in the Context of Their Relationships, Although Most Say Social Media Has a Relatively Minor Impact

Social Media Can Increase Emotional and Logistical Connections in Teen Relationships, but Most Teens Feel This Impact Is Relatively ModestMany teens in relationships view social media as a place where they can feel more connected with the daily contours of their significant other’s life, share emotional connections and let their significant other know they care – although these sites can also lead to feelings of jealousy or uncertainty about the stability of one’s relationship. At the same time, even teens who indicate that social media has had an impact on their relationship (whether for good or for bad) tend to feel that its impact is relatively modest in the grand scheme of things.

Among teen social media users with relationship experience:

  • 59% say social media makes them feel more connected with what is going on in their significant other’s life, although just 15% indicate that it makes them feel “a lot” more connected. About one-third (35%) of these teens say social media does not make them feel more connected with their significant other.
  • 47% say social media offers a place for them to show how much they care about their significant other, with 12% feeling this way “a lot”; 45% do not feel that social media offers a venue for this type of interaction with their significant other.
  • 44% say social media helps them feel emotionally closer to their significant other, with 10% feeling that way “a lot.” Half (50%) do not feel that social media offers a space to feel emotionally closer.
  • 27% say social media makes them feel jealous or unsure about their relationship, with 7% feeling this way “a lot.” Roughly two-thirds (68%) do not feel jealous or unsure of their relationship due to social media.

Boys are a bit more likely than girls to view social media as a space for emotional and logistical connection with their significant other. Some 65% of boys with relationship experience who use social media agree that these sites make them feel more connected about what’s going on in their significant other’s life (compared with 52% of girls). Similarly 50% of boys say social media makes them feel more emotionally connected with their significant other, compared with 37% of girls. At the same time, even among boys this impact is fairly muted: Just 16% say social media makes them feel “a lot” more connected to their significant other’s life, while just 13% feel “a lot” more emotionally close to their significant other thanks to social media.

Teens in our focus group explained the way digital communication platforms – social media as well as texting – can enhance and expand on in-person meetings. One high school girl noted:

“I feel like it helps to develop a relationship because even if you meet someone in person, you can’t see them all the time or talk to them all the time to get to know them, so you text them or message them to get to know them better.”

Focus group teens told us how talking with their significant other over text and social media helped them overcome shyness and create a greater sense of connection:

“My boyfriend isn’t shy … but I’m more shy. And it gets easier for him to tell me everything in person, but when we’re … when I’m in person with him, like, it’s harder for me to tell him what I’m feeling. So like I’ll think about it when we’re together, and then like afterwards I’ll probably text him like what I was feeling and tell him my problems.”

Another high school girl relates how texting helped her relationship with her boyfriend:

“I think texting kind of makes you feel closer because – boys are more shy. I’m more shy, but … my boyfriend, he doesn’t like to express himself like that. But when we text, it seems like it’s so much easier for him to talk to me. So I think he says more stuff, like how he feels through text. So it kind of makes [the relationship] stronger.”

For some, one other useful feature of multiple digital communication platforms (e.g., texting, messaging apps, Twitter, Instagram) is that those platforms allow teens to manage communicating with multiple people and multiple romantic partners. One high school boy from our focus groups relates his strategy:

“Sometimes, if you [are romantically involved with] a bunch of girls, you can have set time periods – where it’s like you can ignore her for a little bit and talk to her. And then you would go back and instead of talking to her, be like, sorry, I was in the shower or something like that. Or I was asleep? Do you know what I mean? You use different apps to talk to different girls. You can text one girl. You can be Kik-ing10 another girl, then Snapchatting another girl.”

Photos and posts can be used by teens to incite jealousy in others, often former partners, and lead to jealous feelings for some teens. Teens in our focus group described peering at photos on their partner’s profile to look for suspicious images. One high school girl explains her calculus:

“It depends on like what they’re doing in the picture. If they’re just standing side by side, it’s like, chill. But if they’re like … if he’s got his arm on her or something, like, more. … Like I guess it just depends on your jealousy level if you can feel like, ‘oh, I know my man wants me.’ Or if you’re like ‘does he really want me?’ It just depends on the person.”

A Substantial Minority of Teen Daters Feel Their Significant Other Shows a Different Side of Themselves – or Is Less Authentic – on Social Media

As seen in our report on teen friendships, social media allows users to curate their online presence in a way that puts their best digital foot forward, or shows a different side of their personality than they can show offline. At the same time, this self-presentation can sometimes appear inauthentic or phony to others. Teens are especially attuned to this type of social curation: When it comes to teen friendships, fully 85% of teen social media users agree that social media allows people to show a side of themselves that they can’t show online. At the same time, 77% agree that people are less authentic and real on social media than they are in real life.

Teens tend to experience each of these behaviors to a lesser extent in the context of their romantic relationships than they do in their broader friend networks. But a substantial minority feel that their partner acts differently – in positive or negative ways — on social media than he or she does in real life. Among the 31% of teens who are “teen daters” who use social media:

  • 42% agree that their significant other shows a different side of themselves on social media than they do in person, with 9% agreeing strongly. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) disagree with this statement.
  • 36% agree that their significant other is less authentic and real on social media than they are offline, with 7% agreeing strongly. Roughly two-thirds (64%) disagree.

Girls are more likely to “strongly disagree” with the notion that their partner shows a different side of themselves on social media than they do offline: 13% of girls strongly disagree with this statement, compared with just 4% of boys. On the other hand, there are no differences between boys and girls on the question of whether their partner is less authentic on social media than they are in real life.

The Publicness Paradox: Many Teens Use Social Media to Publicly Express Affection for Their Partner and Support Their Friends’ Relationships, Even as They Feel Their Own Relationships are Too Visible to Others

37% of teens with dating experience have taken to social media to publicly express their affection for a significant other

For a substantial minority of teens, social media offers a space to publicly express affection or solidarity with their romantic partner. Some 37% of teens with dating experience have used social media to tell their significant other how much they like them in a way that is visible to other people.

Teens from less well-off households, as well as those who have met a partner online, are especially likely to have done this. Among teens with relationship experience:

  • 47% of those from households earning less than $50,000 annually have used social media to publicly express affection for a significant other (compared with 33% of teens from higher-income households).
  • 54% of those who have met a partner or significant other online have used social media in this way, compared with 32% of those who have not met someone online.

63% of teen daters use social media to express support of others’ romantic relationships

Beyond publicly displaying affection and one’s own relationship, social media is a space where many teens can express public support or approval of others’ romantic relationships: 63% of teens with dating experience have posted or liked something on social media as a way to indicate their support of one of their friends’ relationships.

Girls are especially likely to publicly support their friends’ relationships using social media (71% of girls with dating experience have done so, compared with 57% of boys) although boys and girls are equally likely to publicly express affection for their own partner in social media environments.

In addition, teens from less well-off households (those earning less than $50,000 per year) engage in each of these behaviors at higher rates, compared with those from higher-income households. Among lower-income teens with dating experience, 73% (compared with 59% of higher-income teens) have supported their friends’ relationships on social media, while 47% of less well-off teens (and 33% of higher-income teens) have publicly expressed affection for their own partner in a public way on social media.

Teens in our focus group explained specific ways in which a relationship might be displayed on social media. As a high school boy related, people in relationships change “their status. And then other times, on Instagram it says in their bio, they put like the date that they started going out.” Changing “profile pictures and then just regular pictures,” to be images of the couple is also a common method of displaying one’s relationship and relationship status. A high school boy explained what he believes must be on social media when dating someone. “You’ve got to put the date in the bio and her in the bio. For real. … You need to have the padlock emoji with a heart and two people holding hands. …On Facebook, you’ve got a cover photo… Or a date. Or just a date,” plus your beloved’s username or profile.

Focus group teens also noted that posting publicly about a relationship – noting the date you started the relationship in your bio, declaring your affection, posting photos – sometimes had to do with gaining a sense of status, expressing possessiveness or getting attention from peers:

High school boy 1: You just want people to know. With some people, it’s for the attention and stuff like that.

High school boy 2: Well, speaking in terms of the way people generally seem to behave, it’s victory.

High school boy 1: And it’s also probably to tell people like, hey, back off. She’s mine or he’s mine.

Other focus group teens questioned how meaningful and authentic these social media displays of affection really were:

High school boy 1: “How about the girls that post they love you every 20 minutes on Facebook.”

High School Boy 2: “People are really quick to say I love you. A lot of people use it so loosely.”

High School Boy 1: “It don’t mean nothing no more.”

Many teen daters feel social media allows too many people to see what is happening in their relationship

But even as they use social media to support their friends’ relationships, many teen daters express annoyance at the public nature of their own romantic partnerships on social media. Fully 69% of teen social media users with dating experience agree that too many people can see what’s happening in their relationship on social media, with 16% indicating that they “strongly” agree. Just 31% of such teens disagree with this statement, and only a small percentage (2%) disagree “strongly.” Boys and girls, older and younger teens, and those from higher- and lower-income households are equally likely to agree with this statement.

Teens in our focus groups explained their concerns about people being overly involved, especially in breakups, and their discomfort with the permanence of posted content. One high school boy explained why someone might not want to post any details about their relationship on social media:

“I don’t know. Maybe they just want it to be their business. Then, you know, if you were to post it online and then you break up, you probably wouldn’t want to change it and then everyone asks you what happened, so you might not put it there in the first place. Just let it be the people you actually know who knows. … It comes back because it’s stuck there. It’s like a permanent tattoo.”

A middle school boy related:

“I think some people in my class keep [their relationship] secret because they just like it that way. They don’t like to have everybody know.”

Other teens point to avoiding drama as a reason people kept relationships off social media. As a high school boy explained:

“A lot of people kind of don’t like it on social media because it doesn’t need to be on there. ‘Cause as long as the two know how they feel about each other, I feel like if you have it on social media, it’s like more drama. Because like more people ask questions and stuff like that.”

And some teens don’t post much about the relationship on social media because they’re not sure of the relationship status or they don’t want to seem like they’re bragging about their good fortune. A high school girl explained:

“Maybe they’re just not sure about it, too. I mean, I feel like that would be me. I wouldn’t really know if we were in a relationship yet, so I wouldn’t say anything about it. And I wouldn’t want to be obsessive about it, and I wouldn’t want people to think I was bragging either, so I just wouldn’t show anything.”

Occasionally, relationships are kept off social media to keep them from the prying eyes of parents. One middle school boy explained:

“Sometimes if your parents find out, I mean, my mom lets me have a girlfriend, but some protective parents … they sometimes don’t even let them out with their friends. One of my friends, he can never come out. But he liked a girl that I liked and he asked her out, and she said yeah. And then he went home and I walked home with him and I went by his house and then he told his dad and his dad said I had to leave. And then his dad slammed the door and started screaming.”

  1. Kik-ing refers to sending a message through Kik, a messaging app.