I am confused and find it hard to accept social media. I wanted to know [if it] is ok for my boyfriend to like photos of other girls and follow other women on Instagram. Is that pushing the limits in a relationship?
Thank you for your question. Research on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is relatively new. There are, however, some recent studies that can directly answer your question.
Our own Dr. Amy Muise published a study finding that social network use (e.g., Facebook) can promote jealousy in relationships, because you are exposed to ambiguous information about your partner’s behaviors.1 In your case, you don’t have a clear picture of your partner’s motives for following other women on Instagram. Therefore, this ambiguity leads to perceptions that his behaviors are a threat to the stability of your relationship.
A number of researchers have studied how perceptions of on-line sexual activity affect in-person intimate relationships. On-line sexual activities can include a range of activities, such as reading/posting messages on a sex news-group or bulletin board (e.g., alt.sex); chatting live (instant messaging) with someone about sex; intentionally viewing/downloading erotic images/videos online; emailing sexual images; watching/engaging with someone sexually via webcam; going to a sexual matchmaking site to find someone with compatible sexual interests; or approaching someone in a chat room for an offline sexual encounter.2 While your boyfriend’s monitoring of other women on Instagram may not be as equivalent in severity to such activities, it is useful to determine whether perceptions of these other activities impact intimate relationship functioning. One group of researchers analyzed survey data from over 8,000 heterosexual adults in committed intimate relationships who had (or whose partner had) engaged in at least one of the on-line sexual activities described above.2 Consistent with the basic gist of your question, men and women differed in how they viewed these activities. Men were generally excited about their partner’s engagement and use of online sexual activity (e.g., wanting to know more about what turns their partners on). Women, however, were not nearly as positive and reported often feeling hurt or betrayed by their guys’ online exploits. In other words, many women were not comfortable with their partner’s on-line sexual activities. There were, however, some women who were not threatened by their partner’s behaviors.
The take home message from studies like these is that the “acceptability” of your boyfriend’s activities is very subjective. While he may be OK with following other women on Instagram (and not see it as a threat or betrayal of trust in your relationship), you may not see it that way. It is your perception of what is acceptable that impacts your feelings of intimacy. For example, a survey of couples found that when a woman disapproved of her partner’s consumption of pornography, both partner’s perceptions of relationship intimacy suffered. Because research has found that almost all married men consume at least some level of pornography, and that men consume considerably more pornography than women,3 how women perceive the acceptability of men’s pornography use in heterosexual relationships can impact the quality of their relationship.
Your boyfriend may not believe that his behaviors are inappropriate, or know his behaviors make you feel uncomfortable. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s insensitive; guys tend to view this sort of activity as more acceptable than women, and such behaviors do not necessarily pose a threat to the relationship. I suggest talking with your boyfriend openly about how you feel about each other and what his activities mean for your relationship. At the very least, this type of open communication can increase intimacy between you and allow for greater understanding of each other’s sexual and emotional needs in your relationship.
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1Muise, A., Christofides, E., & Desmarais, S. (2009). More information than you ever wanted: Does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy? CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 441-444.
2Grov, C., Gillespie, B. J., Royce, T., & Lever, J. (2011). Perceived consequences of casual on-line sexual activities on heterosexual relationships: A U.S. On-line survey. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 429-439.
3Poulson, F. O., Busby, D. M., & Galovan, A. M. (2013). Pornography use: Who uses it and how it is associated with couple outcomes. Journal of Sex Research, 50, 72-83.
Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.