Social Media and Relationships

Social media has undoubtedly blown up the world of beginning, maintaining, and ending relationships.

While I’ve aged out of the dating pool, I remember the discovery of instant messenger (IM) and chat rooms when I was in junior high–my girlfriends and I immediately recognized this technological advance for the miracle it was: a way to flirt with boys!

Luckily, this was also pre-cell phone and digital camera, our banter was ridiculously innocent and naive, and we all avoided abduction to laugh about it today

Remember Instant Messanger?

In college, IM provided an additional form of social lubricant: you could connect with someone through your sheer wit and words per minute rather than awkwardly painful real life, face-to-face interactions. 

It seemed genius: instead of fumbling around with an excuse to start a conversation with someone, you just typed “hey.” You didn’t have to worry about your facial expression, food in your teeth, the pitch of your voice, the palpitations of your heart.

If someone didn’t respond, you could just assume they were busy–at least it was a lot less uncomfortable than someone rolling their eyes or walking away from you in person.

But it was weird too because sometimes the online relationships you developed with someone didn’t translate well into real life.

You would “chat” late into the night with someone, as close as down the hall, trading stories about your childhood, insecurities, life plans, and lots of LOLs–then would see them in the dining hall the next day and… nothing.

You could talk again the next night and never acknowledge the relationship outside of the IM window on the computer. 

Relationships and Online Dating

I remember when a very close friend of mine, who in the dawn of internet relationships and pre-online dating websites “met” a guy on ‘Hot or Not,’ where you submitted pictures of yourself and others would rate you as, you guessed it, hot or not. She lived on the east coast, he the west coast–and she was 9 years his junior; a junior in high school.

Well, this story could have had a bad ending, but the guy ended up being awesome and when she became a legal adult, she finally opened up to her parents about the “relationship.” 

She took a few years off the age difference at first, and he finally met her parents, who were nervous/skeptical, but ended up liking him a lot too because it turned out he was a really good guy! The age gap was finally fessed up to, and they dated for a number of years.

Related: The Quest For Love: Leveling Up In The Dating Game

The telling anecdote about this story: when my friend and I were talking about the whole mess of it, she, at the time, stated that the most embarrassing thing that had happened to her up until that point in life had been having to tell her parents about her internet boyfriend!

At the time, to admit you met someone on the interweb was considered pretty sketchy and possibly meant that you were extremely desperate or severely disfigured.

However, now meeting someone and initiating a relationship through an online dating website or even through social media is the norm. 

It removes some of the social challenges, such as being able to manage how people view you and what they know about you, and provides some sense of freedom from the risk of rejection.

It allows you to let someone get to know you on your own terms, which might be empowering and encourage someone to take more risks with self-disclosing and opening up. 

However, communicating through such a managed and manufactured construction of how you want others to view you might create a false sense of intimacy or even perpetuate insecurities or social anxiety–you might suspect that people preferred your internet “self” as opposed to your flawed and unfiltered “real-time” self. 

Overall, for most people, there is some anxiety associated with meeting someone for the first time and some comfort in doing it electronically, but it’s important to consider how to translate that into the real world.

The Impact of Social Media on Relationships: Popular dating apps include Tinder, Hinge, Match, and Bumble.

The Impact of Social Media on Relationships

Social media has impacted how relationships grow and sustain themselves.

On one hand, social media and technology have allowed relationships to be established and sustained from a physical distance.

On the other hand, social media may have “ruined dating,” in the sense that the courtship process can now occur almost entirely over the internet and decrease the incentive to make a commitment.

The search for perfection may make you even less likely to commit, especially when potential flaws or incompatibilities emerge.

With other options always easily available via the web, it may not seem worth it to work through a potential obstacle or overlook a potential flaw to see if the relationship haspotential. With access to a limitless supply of paramours, it can feel like ‘settling’ to label yourself as being in an exclusive relationship.

You can also privately juggle multiple relationships at once, which can make it difficult to give anyone relationship the attention needed to really assess whether it could develop and become meaningful.

Related: Are We REALLY Friends On Facebook?

A rotating roster of relationship candidates can promote a false sense of what one person can truly provide another, and possibly stunt someone from learning how to have a healthy and fulfilling relationship in the future.

Not only has social media changed how we initiate and maintain relationships, it has impacted our ability to end them and move on with our lives. 

An NPR special on online dating noted that “texting and social media make romantic ties simultaneously easy to avoid and harder to shake.” The termination of a relationship just doesn’t mean what it used to. 

Pre-internet, if you broke up with someone and wanted to avoid reminders of their existence, you could do so fairly easily: destroy their photographs, change your routine, move to a new town, etc. Now, all of your ex’s lives, future partners, and future children can be viewed in the comfort of your own bedroom every night. 

Even if you ‘block’ them, friends of friends who are friends of theirs can lead to unpleasant surprise ‘interactions,’ which can be unsettling and perhaps prevent someone from getting the psychological distance they need from an ex. 

Developers are coming up with ways to limit such opportunities, such as Eternal Sunshine, named after the film where ex’s undergo treatment in order to have each other erased from their memories. This program proposes to digitally erase all reminders of an ex.

This comic was created by Drew Brockington.

Use Technology to Strengthen Connections

So, if you are trying to meet someone using social media, remember that in order to find out if you have a connection, it is important to make an effort to get to know someone without the distraction of multiple potential love interests. 

Keep in mind that flaws are what make us interesting, and part of the fun of getting to know someone and developing a relationship is to overcome challenges and be vulnerable together. 

Make sure to save some interactions for real-time in-person communication, so as to give yourselves opportunities to experience life from the same perspective, and to engage in mutually shared experiences.

Don’t get caught up in the FOMO (“fear of missing out”) or social comparison with your ex’s virtual life. It distracts you from moving on with your life and can open wounds that need to heal. 

Focus on how technology can strengthen your bonds with others, and be keen on how it can also distract us from getting what we want: healthy, sustainable relationships that make us feel good about ourselves.

Click here to read more articles by Rachel Kitson, Ph.D.!


Rachel Kitson, Ph.D.
Rachel obtained her BA in sociology at Brown University, and her doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill. She has experience working in public schools, hospitals, psychiatric and mental health clinics, and forensic settings. Rachel specializes in working with young adults and adults who are navigating interpersonal relationships, managing the stress associated with major life transitions, and striving for balance in their lives. She provides individual, couples, and group therapy. Rachel provides assessment in issues surrounding learning, attention, motivation, mood, and personality. Areas of interest include anxiety, depression/bipolar disorder, diagnostic clarification, males and females with Asperger’s, issues surrounding identity and sexuality, and adult ADHD. Rachel also works with people and caretakers of people with chronic illness. She has experience advocating for her clients in the schools and courts. Rachel utilizes a strengths based and interpersonal approach. Therapeutically, Rachel helps her clients to examine their lives, and cultivate meaningful interpersonal relationships and experiences to enhance their quality of life.

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