My Topics

22 September 2016

How Teens Use Social Media in Their Romantic Relationships

Keywords: computer, internet, media, teens, Western Europe, focus groups, interview, social media, young adults,

Social media pervasively influence various aspects of the social lives of teenagers, including their romantic relationships. A study in Computers in Human Behavior shows that social media have both beneficial and adverse consequences for the way in which teens initiate, maintain, and end their romantic relationships.

Take aways

  • Social media shape the way in which teens experience and express their romantic relationships.
  • On the one hand, social media can have positive effects, for example by allowing them to seek information and initiate contact with a potential partner.
  • On the other hand, social media can also have a negative impact because it provides the possibility to evoke jealousy and exert control over one’s romantic partner.
  • Media literacy education programs could make teens aware of the unique opportunities social media have to offer for the initiation and maintenance of romantic relationships, while at the same time taking into account the possible downsides of the medium

Study information

  • The question?

    What is the role of social media in teens’ romantic relationships?

  • Who?

    57 high school students (between the ages of 15 and 18 years old; 67% girls)

  • Where?

    Flanders, Belgium

  • How?

    Students from two secondary schools in Flanders were asked to participate in the study (which was part of the larger Teen Digital Dating Study) through the schools’ digital web environment. Teens who agreed to participate were divided into 11 same-sex focus groups that consisted of 3 to 8 participants. In each group, the researchers administered semi-structured questionnaires containing several key questions, for example which social media platforms teens use and examples of how social media impact romantic relationships. Depending on the responses of the teens, multiple follow-up questions were asked until the researchers thought they knew enough about the topic. The focus groups were conducted during students’ lunch break or a free hour in between classes and lasted between 30 and 60 minutes.

Facts and findings

  • With respect to the initiation of romantic relationships, teens used social media
    • as a source of information about a potential partner. Pictures and status updates provided the most valuable information.
    • to express interest into a potential partner and to get noticed by the other through actively liking or commenting on their pictures or status updates.
    • to send private messages as a next step to get attention. The lack of face-to-face contact made it easy to initiate contact via social media.
  • With respect to the maintenance of romantic relationships, the results showed that
    • although some social media platforms allow users to indicate whether they are in a relationship, teens did not consider being ‘Facebook official’ to be important.
    • it was important for teens to signal that they were ‘unavailable’ by checking into places together or posting pictures together.
    • teens’ partners could evoke jealousy by liking or commenting on pictures or status updates of others. Teens also got jealous when others commented on a picture or status update of their partner.
    • social media allow teens to control their romantic partner by a) sharing passwords to control each other’s accounts and log in without permission, b) controlling whether messages sent to the partner are read, and c) controlling the partner’s friend list.
  • Regarding the termination of romantic relationships, teens said they
    • stopped all forms of digital contact (e.g., liking, commenting) after the break-up and some even unfriended or blocked their ex.
    • deleted all pictures together with their ex to express that they were not together any longer.
    • saw other teens express hurt feelings through social media, but only a few noted to have seen mean status updates (e.g., insulting the ex partner).
    • thought that after a break-up, other teens could invoke jealousy by posting pictures with ‘new’ boys or girls to suggest that they were fine and not affected by the ending of the relationship.
  • Critical note: Because only a limited number of teens can participate in focus group studies, the results of this study might not hold for all teenagers.