Whether you like it or not, Facebook has become a central part of young people’s lives: about 75% of adolescents and young adults (aged 12-24) in the United States are active users of Facebook.1 As an important part of their day-to-day social interactions, Facebook reflects and plays a critical role in the development of young people’s romantic relationships. The importance of Facebook is illustrated by a recent paper published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,2 which employed in-depth interviews and focus groups with 55 college students to gather their thoughts about Facebook’s role in relationship development. College students are typically heavy users of Facebook; this sample of students reported spending, on average, nearly 2.5 hours actively using Facebook each day (which is similar to the frequency reported in other studies).3
Based on these interviews, the researchers identified three themes that are relevant at different points of relationship development:
1. Relationship Initiation
In general, students do not consider Facebook to be an on-line dating site and don’t typically use it as a way to identify potential partners. However, Facebook is commonly used to communicate and interact with potential partners after meeting in person (read more about the best place to meet someone here). Students use Facebook as a way to see if they are interested in pursuing more serious relationships, and it has replaced talking on the phone in the early stages of relationships. For example, one participant in the study reported that “It used to be, like, ‘Can I get your number?’ But now, you’ll see the next day they’re friending you, and then you start talking on Facebook. And that leads to ‘Can I get your number? I’ll text you.”
Communicating via Facebook early in a relationship is a less direct and more casual way of seeing if someone is interested in you. Compared to talking on the phone, which can produce all sorts of anxiety for some people, on Facebook you can be less forward and slowly show interest in someone rather than jumping in headfirst with a phone call. In fact, participants in this study noted that calling someone on the phone was “too forward.” Because communicating via Facebook is less direct, there is less apprehension about being rejected; on Facebook, it may be easier to tactfully let someone know you aren’t interested in a romantic relationship without having to come right out and directly reject them.
In addition, getting to know someone on Facebook has actually slowed the process of relationship initiation. Facebook messages are an asynchronous form of communication (i.e., it doesn’t take place in “real time” with immediate back-and-forth responses). As a result, people can take their time and craft responses carefully, which allows them to better control their self-presentation (which psychologists call “impression management”). Since you’re not being put on the spot with a fast-flowing dialogue, you can make sure to put your best foot forward and strategically write clever messages that make you seem much more interesting than you really are.
Clearly, Facebook is key in in the early stages of relationship development. Part 2 of this article examines two more functions of Facebook: information seeking and communication the status of the relationship. >>
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2Fox, J., Warber, K. M., & Makstaller, D. C. (in press). The role of Facebook in romantic relationship development: An exploration of Knapp’s relational stage model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
3Kalpidou, M., Costin, D., & Morris, J. (2011). The relationship between Facebook and the well-being of undergraduate college students. CyberPsychology, Behavior, & Social Networking, 14, 183-189.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.