Social media use, jealousy, and interpersonal surveillance in young adults’ romantic relationships
Picture this, you log on to your social media account and stumble upon an old picture of your partner and their ex-lover. While you know it is an old picture, you cannot help but feel the green-eyed monster creeping in: jealousy. Questions rush through your mind while you try to calm yourself down. However, the feeling does not go away. You go a step further and you start looking up your partner’s profile. Unbeknownst to you, hours have passed, and you have perused each corner of your partner’s social media account – a behavior researchers refer to as interpersonal surveillance and is characterized by hidden strategies used to gain information about another person’s digital footprint 1 . Against your will, you repeat this pattern many times while your partner has no idea.
If this scenario seems familiar, odds are, you are not alone! In fact, 34% of young adults aged 18 to 29 years old report feeling jealous because of interactions their partner had on social media 2 . As well, a study has shown that amongst a sample of Facebook users, interpersonal surveillance was the second most endorsed motive to use the app 3 .
In our current era, social media plays a key role in young adults’ romantic relationships, with 90% of this demographic being active on at least one social networking site 4 . Specifically, social media has implications for young adults’ romantic relationships given the great access and constant connectivity to others the interface allows 5 . Such data reveal that the rampant use of social networking sites can have repercussions on our emotional state, behaviors, and most cherished relationships.
Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are integral to different stages of a romantic relationship, such as initiation, maintenance, dissolution, and post-dissolution 6 . For example, social media has allowed individuals to form romantic relationships 7 . Additionally, interacting with a romantic partner online appears essential in maintaining the relationship. Indeed, social media allows partners to publicly convey, through symbolic gestures, a desire to further invest the relationship 8 . For instance, displaying overt affection with a lover through social media (e.g.: commenting affectionate words on a partner’s post) is associated with greater relationship satisfaction and longevity 9 .
However, social media is also central to the dissolution of a relationship – unfriending, blocking an ex-partner or updating the status of a relationship are amongst various online behaviors done after a breakup 10 . Furthermore, interpersonal surveillance can be enacted post-breakup to monitor an ex-partner 11 .
While the use of social media can have benefits for a romantic relationship, it can also be the cause of conflicts 12 . Many studies have shown that online interactivity with a partner, such as uploading pictures with your lover and liking or commenting on a partners’ post, is linked to relationship quality 13 . However, jealousy triggered by a partner’s social media content and surveillance can significantly decrease relationship satisfaction 14 . Notably, social media rapidly triggers feelings of jealousy because individuals are easily exposed to ambiguous content about their significant other (e.g., a picture of your partner with an attractive person) 15 . Simply put, these ambiguous cues are often interpreted as a threat to the integrity of the relationship. In the mate retention perspective, which posits that individuals adopt certain behaviors to avoid losing their partner, jealousy is a feeling which drives a person to act on a perceived threat to protect their relationship 16 ,17 .
Moreover, interpersonal surveillance is explained by the uncertainty reduction theory. This theory asserts that when partners are faced with uncertainty about their relationship or, in other words, if they have doubts about the seriousness or the future of the relationship, they may feel the urge to reduce this feeling 18 . In turn, information seeking by monitoring a romantic partner’s online profile can reduce these doubts by soothing any worries on the state of the relationship. However, such behavior is intrusive and linked with lower relationship quality.
Interestingly, a study found that, on days when greater jealousy was reported, women spent more time surveilling their partner on Facebook 19 . These results are not surprising since studies have shown a strong association between jealousy and interpersonal surveillance. This also suggests that feelings of jealousy triggered by a romantic partner’s social media accounts can lead to surveillance.
Furthermore, research indicates that certain characteristics predict jealousy and interpersonal surveillance. Amongst them are individual traits such as gender and attachment style, which is defined by how individuals relate to others in their close interpersonal relationships. Indeed, individuals who identify as women appear more prone to feel jealous after interacting with content from their partner’s social media. They also surveilled their partner’s account at a higher rate than individuals who identify as men. Moreover, a study has shown that individuals with an anxious attachment style – characterized by doubts about their personal worth and a fear of abandonment – are more likely to experience jealousy related to their partner’s digital content and exhibit monitoring behaviors 14 .
Unfortunately, jealousy and interpersonal surveillance can hinder the development of a healthy relationship. Therefore, if these phenomena are central to the dynamic of your relationship, it may be a good thing to discuss the obvious “elephant” in the bedroom with your significant other. Certainly, communication is key in these instances. Setting clear boundaries around social media with your partner by discussing contents which may elicit strong emotional reactions may be helpful. Moreover, since interpersonal surveillance can be enacted in cases of skepticism about the state of the relationship, it might be more appropriate to communicate any concerns to your partner rather than utilizing intrusive behaviors. Although not easy, these strategies can foster a healthier use of social media and act as protective factors against the unwanted consequences of digital interfaces on romantic relationships. In summary, the widespread use of these platforms by young adults has increasing implications for their romantic relationships. As such, it is important that this demographic become aware of the potential pitfalls associated with the use of social media.
The publication of this article was made possible thanks to our partner, the Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Intimate Relationship Problems and Sexual Abuse (CRIPCAS), and the Fonds de recherche du Québec.
To cite this article: Métellus, S. (2021, November 22). Honey, let’s talk about the elephants in the bedroom : Social media use, jealousy, and interpersonal surveillance in young adults’ romantic relationships. TRACE Blog. https://natachagodbout.com/en/blog/honey-lets-talk-about-elephants-bedr…;
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Sarafina Métellus is a doctoral student (Ph.D/Psy.D) in psychology at the Université de Montréal. Under the supervision of Marie-Ève Daspe, her research interests focus on the diverse impacts of social media use and digital technology on the relational lives of young adults (aged 18-29).