A study published today by the School of Psychology at National University Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) reveals a link between “problematic” Facebook use and attachment anxiety and avoidance in adult relationships.
While previous studies have examined the positive and negative results of social networking site use, this NUIG study’s aim was to examine “problematic” Facebook use and its association with problems in those Facebook users’ offline relationships.
Researchers concluded that “users of Facebook with higher levels of attachment insecurity may be gravitating towards the site in order to fulfill their attachment needs”, a tendency likely heightened in users with low self-esteem and those experiencing psychological distress, such as high levels of anxiety, stress, or depression.
NUI Galway Senior Lecturer in Psychology and co-author of the study, Dr Kiran Sarma, emphasised that the research does not indicate any inherent dangers associated with Facebook or other social media sites. Rather, it shows that some people use these sites in a way which is “exacerbating distress and vulnerability”.
717 adult Facebook users participated in the study. Participants completed online measures of psychological distress, self-esteem, adult attachment avoidance (the avoidance of intimacy and closeness in relationships) and attachment anxiety (the fear of rejection and over-dependence in relationships), as well as measures of their “problematic” Facebook use.
It was found that participants with high levels of attachment anxiety were also those engaged in all of the measured aspects of “problematic” Facebook use. Researchers defined this problematic use as the degree of social comparison, self-disclosures, impression management, and intrusive Facebook use by these participants.
These participants displayed a heightened tendency to over-share personal information in their Facebook posts, engaged in compulsive comparison of themselves to others’ profiles, and spent time “managing” their online selves with the aim of exposing only what they thought would be acceptable to others and concealing what they feared would be rejected. They also engaged in “intrusive” Facebook use such that their use of Facebook was disrupting their offline lives (impacting their sleep, work/study, or social relationships).
Lead author Dr Sally Flynn explained: “For some users, specific patterns of Facebook use may be maintaining or even exacerbating negative psychological outcomes, such as low mood and depression.”
“With this knowledge, clinicians may explore patterns of Facebook use with clients, which may be helpful in providing appropriate support and adapting therapeutic interventions,” Flynn continued.
Additionally, researchers suggested that problematic Facebook use, such as online social comparisons, by individuals with high attachment anxiety is a more prevalent sign of their anxiety than the individual’s conscious social comparisons offline. Because Facebook offers a much greater number of people that the user can compare themselves with, alongside “observable markers of popularity” that serve to heighten these social comparison tendencies, an individual’s degree of problematic Facebook use is potentially more indicative of adult attachment anxiety than other offline signs of this anxiety.
For those participants with high levels of attachment avoidance, the study found a link between this trait and their degree of impression management on Facebook. Participants who tended toward higher levels of avoidance of intimacy/closeness in their personal relationships concentrated more on creating an online positive self-image and concealing aspects of their online self that they feared would be rejected by others.