Seeing that the romantic partner leaves comments on the Facebook wall of an attractive member of the opposite sex can induce jealousy (Muise, Christofides, & Desmarais, 2009). But if the partner publicly displays his or her affection on a social network site (SNS), can this also increase relationship happiness? And to what extent are these effects moderated by self-esteem? These are the central questions of this paper. SNS have become part of everyday life for many people. Research has mainly focused on self-presentation, privacy settings, or the consequences of SNS use for bridging and bonding capital (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Krämer & Winter, 2008; Siibak, 2009; Steinfield, Ellison, & Lampe, 2008; Utz & Krämer, 2009). Up till now, relatively little research has focused on the effects of SNS on romantic relationships.
Muise et al. (2009) brought the attention to a negative effect Facebook use might have: increasing jealousy. The access to the partner's profile provides people with information they did not have before SNS came up; Muise et al. (2009) showed that people can become jealous if they see their partner interacting with potential romantic partners on Facebook. Although Facebook jealousy was mainly determined by trait jealousy, there was an additional effect of time spent on Facebook, indicating that SNS increase feelings of jealousy. The present paper builds on this research and extends it in several ways. First, the focus is not only on negative effects of SNS use on romantic relationships, but also on positive effects. Second, the paper focuses on the moderating role of self-esteem and examines the role of need for popularity.
SNS and romantic relationships: What is new?
SNS are profile sites that display the connections between users. Usually, users upload a profile picture and provide information about their education and occupation, their favorite music, sport, movies, travel destinations, and so on. Unlike earlier forms of CMC such as usenet newsgroups or chats, SNS are “nonymous” online environments (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008). That is, users can be identified and found in real life. The profiles do not only entail identifying information, but they also present the social network of the user. The displayed relationships usually correspond to offline relationships and are therefore termed “anchored relationships” (Zhao et al., 2008). These characteristics make SNS a distinct type of virtual community. Comments posted on the wall or photos uploaded to the profile are usually shared at least with friends and acquaintances, if not even with all users of the SNS.
The largest and most well-known SNS is Facebook which has now more than 500 million active users according to their own statistics (Facebook, 2010). In the Netherlands, where this study has been conducted, Hyves is the most popular SNS. It has more than 10 million users (Hyves, 2010) and focuses on Dutch-speaking people. Like Facebook, it is a leisure-oriented SNS. There are less social games like MafiaWars or Farmville, but the remaining features are quite similar.
SNS are mainly used for the maintenance of social relationships, especially for upholding contact with weaker social ties (Ellison et al., 2007). However, they also offer a platform for (idealized) self-presentation. Impression management has been found to be an important motive for setting up and maintaining a profile on a SNS (Krämer & Winter, 2008). People create desirable identities on SNS and try to become popular among their friends (Zhao et al., 2008). For example, users deliberately choose pictures that make them look cool and popular (Siibak, 2009).
When it comes to romantic relationships, SNS can be used in several ways. Users can display their relationship status on the SNS, they can use a profile picture that displays them together with the partner, or they can upload several pictures showing the couple. Additionally, users can communicate with and about the partner via the SNS. We distinguish three characteristics of SNS that, in our view, enable them to have a profound influence on romantic relationships.
A first characteristic of SNS is that they increase the amount of information that individuals receive about their partner. That is, if the partner is an active user of the SNS, the wall postings on the partner's profile and the postings left by the partner at friends' profiles reveal a lot of information about the partner's daily activities. There is anecdotal evidence that this information can induce jealousy—especially in long-distance relationships, when the partner makes new contacts at his or her distant location (Persch, 2007). SNS can thus fundamentally change the amount of information that is available to romantic partners. Even though people have always received information about their partner from friends or acquaintances, SNS centralize much of this information at one point.
A second characteristic is that SNS offer a socially accepted way of monitoring the partner. Jealous people may tend to show monitoring behavior such as searching the bags of their partner. However, they usually know that this behavior is not socially accepted and forms a trust violation in itself. Visiting the SNS profiles of friends and partner, however, is part of the SNS routine of many users. This may be done with the purpose to maintain contact (i.e., grooming), yet, in the process one has the opportunity to monitor the partner and check his or her activities. The boundary between visiting profiles for the purpose of grooming and monitoring is blurry. Consequently, SNS offer a way to monitor the partner without committing an obvious trust violation.
A third characteristic of SNS is that information that is relevant to the romantic relation is publicly displayed. This aspect may enhance positive and negative feelings about the partner's activities, because the information can be viewed by many people. Although many users make their profiles only available for friends (Utz & Krämer, 2009), friend has a broad meaning on a SNS, and many users have hundreds of friends. Opening at least parts of the profile also for friends of friends further increases the audience to vague acquaintances or even strangers. As a result, the impact of information found on the SNS might be stronger than the one of impact of information gained in a less public context (Afifi, Falato, & Weiner, 2001). Seeing on a SNS that the partner puts an arm around another member of the opposite sex might be experienced as a public self threat because this picture can be seen by all friends and acquaintances.
In the present research we investigate the extent to which the use of SNS has consequences for romantic relationships. Whereas Muise et al. (2009) focused on the negative effects (i.e., jealousy), the present paper will look at both negative and positive effects. We do not assume that SNS use is bad or good for relationships per se; instead, we assume that the direction of the effects mainly depends on the relationship quality and the behavior of the partner. On the one hand, discovering via the SNS that the partner might be cheating might lead to jealous reactions. On the other hand, finding public expressions of love on the SNS could strengthen the relationship and induce relationship happiness (Mod, 2010). In addition, we expect that the need for popularity of the individual plays an important role because of the public character of information on a SNS. Moreover, self-esteem is expected to moderate the effects of SNS use on SNS jealousy and relationship happiness, because self-esteem has repeatedly been found to moderate processes in romantic relationships (Cameron, Holmes, & Vorauer, 2009; Murray, Aloni, et al., 2009; Murray, Leder, et al., 2009). In the following, we first unfold our hypotheses about SNS use and jealousy, after which we turn to potential positive effects.
Romantic jealousy is a widely studied phenomenon. Jealousy is defined as the emotional reaction on a threat to the relationship (Pfeiffer & Wong, 1989), and is one of the most prevalent, but also one of the most potentially destructive emotions in romantic relationships (Buunk & Bringle, 1987). Jealousy has often been viewed as multidimensional construct (e.g. Pfeiffer & Wong, 1989), and various typologies have been proposed (for an overview see Barelds & Barelds-Dijkstra, 2007). Some authors distinguish between dispositional and state jealousy (e.g., Bringle & Evenbeck, 1979; Rich, 1991). The first refers to jealousy as a trait, a relatively stable propensity to respond in a jealous way, the latter refers to jealousy as a reaction on a jealousy-evoking event.
Buunk (1991, 1997) differentiates between reactive, anxious, and possessive jealousy. Reactive jealousy refers mainly to the emotional reactions (anger, sadness) on emotional or sexual infidelity. Anxious jealousy has a strong cognitive component and involves ruminating about the possible infidelity of the partner. Possessive jealousy has a stronger behavioral component and includes monitoring behavior and trying to prevent the partner from having opposite sex friends. Reactive jealousy occurs as reaction to a real threat to the relationship, whereas anxious and possessive jealousy can also occur in the absence of a real threat. Barelds and Barelds-Dijkstra (2007) found that reactive jealousy was positively related to relationship quality. They assume that reactive jealousy signals caring for the partner. Anxious jealousy however was negatively related to relationship quality, probably because it is often ungrounded and therefore causes distress in the relationship. In contrast to their hypotheses, possessive jealousy was unrelated to relationship quality.
SNS use and jealousy
Muise et al. (2009) focused specifically on Facebook related jealousy. These authors argued that the constant availability of information about the partner on the SNS contributes to jealousy. For their study they developed a scale to measure so-called Facebook jealousy - jealousy that arises from the use of Facebook. The scale asks about the likelihood of behaviors such as “becoming jealous after seeing that your partner has received a wall message from someone of the opposite sex” or “worrying that the partner becomes romantically involved with someone on Facebook.” The scale measures the likelihood of reactions in hypothetical situations. None of the items addresses the reactions on actual cheating (= reactive jealousy), but the reactions on typical SNS behaviors such as making friends, receiving or leaving wall messages, or uploading pictures. It could therefore be interpreted as a measure of possessive and anxious jealousy. Adding a person of the opposite sex can be an indication of infidelity, but will in most cases be common SNS use.
In search of predictors of Facebook jealousy, Muise et al. (2009) tested several personality characteristics (self-esteem and trait jealousy, the general tendency to experience jealousy) and relationship variables (trust, commitment, relationship uncertainty). Trait jealousy, measured by self-report, showed the largest positive effect and explained, together with gender, 46% of the variance of Facebook jealousy. Women and jealous individuals exhibited higher levels of Facebook jealousy. Trust was the only relationship factor that had an effect. The higher relationship trust, the lower Facebook jealousy. Relationship uncertainty, commitment, and self-esteem had no effect. However, time spent on Facebook explained an additional 2% of variance. The present research aims to replicate and extend these findings. However, we are more interested in the psychological processes underlying SNS jealousy than in simple gender effects. Gender will be included in all analyses, but the focus of the paper is on personality and relationship variables as well as indicators of SNS use. The first hypothesis is therefore:
H1: Trait jealousy is positively related to SNS jealousy.
In addition to trait jealousy, actual monitoring behavior, a more behavioral measure, could be considered as a potentially better predictor of SNS jealousy. Monitoring behavior is an aspect of possessive jealousy. Some items of the Facebook jealousy scale address online monitoring behavior such as checking the partner's profile on a regular basis or adding the partner's friends to the own profile to keep tabs on the partner. It seems likely that people who monitor their partner in various ways should also be more likely to experience jealousy when seeing rather harmless events such as public conversations of the partner on an SNS with persons of the opposite sex.
H2: Monitoring behavior is positively related to SNS jealousy.
Muise et al.'s (2009) main argument was that SNS make information more accessible. However, as we argued above, it is also socially more accepted to visit the partner's profile. SNS provide an opportunity to unobtrusively monitor the partner. This opportunity should be used by individuals who also tend to monitor their partner via other ways. Helsper and Whitty (2010) reported that in about 30% of married couples at least one partner has at least once secretly read the e-mails or SMS text messages of the partner. If monitoring the partner on a SNS is more socially accepted, people should be more likely to engage in SNS monitoring behavior than in traditional monitoring behavior. Therefore, we also compare the levels of traditional and SNS monitoring behavior. An open research question is formulated:
RQ1: What is the level of SNS monitoring behavior compared to traditional monitoring behavior?
We also expect that SNS use is related to SNS jealousy. Muise et al. (2009) found a relationship between time spent on Facebook and Facebook jealousy. In addition to the time spent on the SNS, we expect that the psychological meaning and the type of use of the SNS may be more important predictors of experienced SNS jealousy. People who consider the SNS as an important part of their life should be more likely to experience SNS jealousy. To test for the effect of type of use of SNS we distinguish two goals people have for using SNS: presenting oneself on the profile and maintaining social contacts. Tufekci (2008) called the latter purpose grooming. We expect that SNS use for grooming increases SNS jealousy more than SNS use for updating the profile. Grooming involves browsing the profiles of friends and thereby increases the chance to encounter information that may evoke jealousy.
H3: SNS use, especially use for grooming, is positively related to SNS jealousy.
We further want to extend the work by Muise et al. (2009) by examining the role of need for popularity. Zhao et al. (2008) identified being popular among SNS friends as a central motivation for SNS use. Christofides, Muise, and Desmarais (2009) reported that need for popularity was related to self-disclosure on the SNS. People with a high need for popularity want to create an idealized image on the SNS. Being in a happy relationship is for many people part of such an image (Zhao et al., 2008). People with a high need for popularity might therefore also be more sensitive to cues that threaten this part of their self-presentation. They might be especially sensitive to activities of their partner on a SNS that may harm the idealized relationship image they like to present. These are public at least within the circle of friends and acquaintances, and such public detections of transgressions are especially damaging for the relationship (Afifi et al., 2001). Individuals with a high need for popularity should therefore be more likely to experience SNS jealousy.
H4: Need for popularity is positively related to SNS jealousy.
Muise et al. (2009) did not find an effect of self-esteem on SNS jealousy. We argue that self-esteem has a moderating rather than a direct effect and expect that the link between need for popularity and SNS jealousy is qualified by self-esteem. Jealousy develops in relationship threatening situations. According to Afifi et al. (2001), infidelity and other transgressions of implicitly or explicitly defined relationship rules pose a face threat. ‘Face’ relates to a desired identity that individuals present to others (Metts, 2000). Such a threat should be perceived as more severe by people with a low self-esteem. People with a high self-esteem usually have more trust in their self-worth and consequently also in the love of their partner. Therefore, self-esteem is an important moderator when it comes to romantic relationships. In general, low self-esteem individuals cope less successfully with various stress-situations in the relationship (Cameron et al., 2009; Murray, Aloni, et al., 2009; Murray, Leder, et al., 2009). The same is expected in the context of SNS jealousy. More specifically, we expect that the link between need for popularity and SNS jealousy is more pronounced for individuals with low self-esteem. These individuals are especially prone to compensate their low self-esteem by striving for acceptance of the peer group (Zywica & Danowski, 2008). For instance, when someone's partner leaves a comment at the profile of a member of the opposite sex, those with low self-esteem who additionally have a high need for popularity might be more threatened and experience a higher level of SNS jealousy. Individuals with high self-esteem on the other hand are more self-assured and should not feel threatened so easily.
H5: Self-esteem moderates the effects of SNS use and need for popularity on SNS jealousy.
Apart from the specific effects of personality characteristics and SNS use, we also expect that SNS jealousy is influenced by relationship satisfaction. Barelds and Barelds-Dijkstra (2007) found that reactive jealousy was positively related to relationship quality, whereas anxious jealousy was negatively related to relationship quality. They also expected possessive jealousy to be negatively related to relationship quality, but this prediction was not confirmed. The SNS jealousy scale assesses the reactions on ambiguous and potentially threatening SNS behaviors, but not the reactions on actual cheating. Thus, it does not really measure reactive jealousy but covers mainly aspects of possessive and anxious jealousy. Therefore, we expect a negative relationship between SNS jealousy and relationship satisfaction.
H6: Relationship satisfaction is negatively related to SNS jealousy.
SNS use and relationship happiness
Prior research on Facebook use and romantic relationships has focused on the negative effects (Muise et al., 2009), but there is evidence that SNS use can strengthen the relationships with friends and acquaintances (Ellison et al., 2007; Steinfield et al., 2008; Valenzuela, Park, & Kee, 2009). These studies found that SNS are especially useful for maintaining bridging capital, that is, weaker ties with acquaintances. However, there were also positive effects on bonding capital, strong ties with close friends. Therefore, we think that SNS use can also strengthen romantic relationships.
SNS can be used to display signs of commitment, for example, when a new partner sets the relationship status to ‘in a relationship.’Mod (2010) found that changing the relationship status is a major step in a relationship and can also alter dynamics in the offline relationship. Mod (2010) also found that people publicly display their affection on SNS and that partners value these public signs of affection These findings are based on interviews with 11 SNS users. We want to examine in a broader sample whether SNS use has also positive effects on romantic relationships.To examine positive effects of SNS use, we developed a scale that, similar to the Facebook jealousy scale, assessed the likelihood that people become happy when the partner displays certain behaviors such as posting a picture of his/her partner. We call this scale SNS relationship happiness for the remainder of the paper.
SNS happiness should for a great deal be determined by relationship satisfaction. If an individual is overall satisfied with the relationship, the individual is also more likely to experience positive emotions whilst browsing the favorite SNS.
H7: Relationship satisfaction is positively related to SNS relationship happiness.
Again, it is expected that the type of SNS use is more important than time spent on the SNS. SNS use for grooming is expected to have the strongest impact because grooming involves browsing of the profiles of friends and the partner. This might seem counterintuitive at the first glance because we also expected a positive relationship between grooming and SNS jealousy. The direction of the emotion is determined by the information found on the SNS, but people who frequently browse the profiles of friends are more likely to encounter information about the partner in wall postings or pictures than people who use SNS primarily for self-presentation. People who use the SNS for grooming should be more likely to experience SNS relationship happiness while browsing, for instance when they encounter that their partner talked about the relationship with friends or has uploaded pictures showing the couple together.
H8: SNS use, especially use for grooming, is positively related to SNS relationship happiness.
Need for popularity should also predict SNS relationship happiness. People who find it more important to look popular on the SNS, should become more happy if their partner publicly displays positive aspects of the relationship.
H9: Need for popularity is positively related to SNS relationship happiness.
Self-esteem has been found to moderate the effects of SNS use on bridging capital (Ellison et al., 2007; Steinfield et al., 2008). Individuals with low self-esteem gained more than individuals with high self-esteem. The effects of SNS use on bonding capital were less strong and not moderated by self-esteem. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that low self-esteem individuals experience more happiness when their partner publicly displays “being in a relationship” compared to high-self-esteem individuals. Therefore, the last hypothesis is:
H10: Self-esteem moderates the effects of SNS use and need for popularity on SNS relationship happiness.