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Virtual Relationships in Social Media

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Virtual Relationships in Social Media

Over a fifth of 25 to 34-year-olds meet their significant others online. This new phenomenon will only grow, with Stanford University predicting that more than half of people will meet their partners online by 2035 (Sky News, 2021). It’s more important than ever for psychologists to study virtual relationships in social media, how and why we form relationships online, and their pros and cons.

Virtual Relationships in Social Media Depiction of a virtual relationship StudySmarterDepiction of a virtual relationship, Canva

What is a virtual relationship in social media?

To begin, let’s go over a few of the most common social media platforms:

  1. Instagram: 1 billion users.

  2. Facebook: 2.5 billion users.

  3. Twitter: 300 million users.

A virtual relationship in social media is formed via a platform like those listed above. It could be a friendship, romantic relationship, or parasocial relationship. But how and why do we create these relationships? What are the most important factors affecting our virtual relationships?

Self-disclosure

Self-disclosure is when we share information with another person. Psychologists such as Altman and Taylor (1973) state that this is the key to forming relationships. Others like Cooper and Sportolari (1997) state that oversharing can lead to the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon.

The boom and bust phenomenon is when people overshare without the proper grounding of trust, which makes self-disclosure an essential part of a relationship, leading to the breakdown of the relationship.

Virtual relationships are much more vulnerable to this phenomenon as self-disclosure tends to occur much faster because of the anonymity of online relationships. Psychologists such as Walher (1996, 2011) call this the ‘hyperpersonal model’ of virtual relationships. Researchers Sproull and Kiesler (1986) suggest that online relationships may be less honest and open than face-to-face ones.

Absence of gating

Gates refer to barriers that prevent us from being attracted to someone if we meet them in person, such as how they speak, smell or look. Virtual relationships have an absence of such gates, and thus some psychologists suggest that we can form more meaningful relationships online.

The absence of gates can also be positive for shy or socially anxious people (Baker & Oswald, 2010; Zhao et al., 2008). They can meet people without the anxiety of real-life interaction. Even if people meet later in the relationship, if an attraction has already been formed, gates rarely dampen this attraction due to the intimacy developed from self-disclosure.

Reduced cues theory

This theory refers to online relationships lacking the physical cues we get in face-to-face interactions, such as facial expressions and body language. According to Sproull and Kessler (1986), virtual interactions are much less effective than face-to-face ones. According to them, this leads to deindividuation, wherein people feel less responsible for their behaviour and become more guarded, preventing self-disclosure.

Evaluation of virtual relationships in social media

Zhao et al. ❲2008❳ found that self-presentation in non-anonymous websites like Facebook was implicit rather than explicit. People show their identities implicitly through posts and pictures rather than explicitly stating their personality traits. This research indicates that social media sites are sources of self-presentation, helping relationship formation.

Some psychologists suggest that reduced cues theory is flawed in its assumption that there are no cues in virtual relationships. They suggest different cues are present, such as time taken to reply and emojis. Research from Whitty and Johnson (2009) and Tidwell and Walther (1995) supports the idea of different cues.

McKenna and Bargh (2000) found that romantic relationships that initially formed online were 70% more likely to last over two years longer than ‘offline’ relationships. The correlation between internet use and successful relationships is also supported by Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012).

However, it is flawed to assume relationships are either online or offline. Today, many real-life relationships also begin and develop online; this is a weakness of investigating so-called ‘virtual relationships’. The study of online relationships is culturally and economically biased. It does not consider that people in less developed countries/ with low income may not form online relationships. There is also evidence to suggest that the depth of self-disclosure differs in men and women, suggesting that virtual relationships and self-disclosure are not the same regardless of gender.

Parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided, unreciprocated relationships, such as a fan’s relationship with a celebrity.

The celebrity attitude scale

McCutcheon et al. (2002) developed this scale alongside research by Maltby et al. (2006) to identify the three levels of parasocial relationships.

  1. Entertainment-social: the least intense level, where celebrities are just sources of entertainment. For example, you watch a film because you like Brad Pitt.

  2. Intense-personal: a feeling of greater personal involvement with the celebrity. For example, you feel like you have an intense emotional connection with Brad Pitt.

  3. Borderline pathological: the most intense level, including fantasising and extreme behaviour. For example, you fly from the UK to Australia to see Brad Pitt at a film premiere.

Absorption-addiction model

McCutcheon (2002) suggested that people who form parasocial relationships do so because they lack something in their own lives. For instance, they may not have a romantic relationship but want a partner, leading them to fantasise about having one with a celebrity.

Absorption refers to an intense, all-encompassing focus on a celebrity, e.g., constantly checking the news to see mentions of them. Addiction is when a person is compelled to have personal involvement with the celebrity, this can lead to extreme behaviours such as stalking and delusions, e.g., camping outside a celebrity’s home in the hope of meeting them.

Attachment

In the attachment topic, we explore Ainsworth (1970) ’s attachment types. We can use these types to explain parasocial relationships, as attachment theorists suggest that people who form parasocial relationships likely had difficulties forming attachments in early life. For instance, someone who had an insecure-resistant attachment type as a child is the most likely to develop a parasocial relationship because these do not risk rejection. Hence, they become attached without fear of rejection.

Evaluation of parasocial relationships

Maltby (2005) supports McCutcheon’s (2002) theory of parasocial relationships. Their study found that girls with body image issues were more likely to form parasocial relationships.

McCutcheon’s (2002) theory and the addiction-absorption model are further supported by research from McCutcheon et al. (2006).

However, the addiction-absorption model is flawed as research often uses self-report techniques.

Virtual Relationships in Social Media - Key takeaways

  • Virtual relationships are very common today and refer to relationships formed and maintained online.
  • Self-disclosure, the absence of gating, and reduced cues theory can explain the increase in virtual relationships.

  • Parasocial relationships are one-sided, unreciprocated relationships, such as a fan’s relationship with a celebrity.

  • We can explain parasocial relationships using the absorption-addiction model or attachment theory.

Frequently Asked Questions about Virtual Relationships in Social Media

Virtual relationships are very common today and refer to relationships formed and maintained online.

Psychologists theorise that the absence of gating, as well as greater self-disclosure, allows virtual relationships to form.

This refers to the fact that online relationships lack the physical cues we get in face-to-face interactions such as facial expressions and body language.

Parasocial relationships are one-sided, unreciprocated relationships such as a fan’s relationship with a celebrity.

It is a scale developed by McCutcheon to explain the different intensities of parasocial relationships.

Final Virtual Relationships in Social Media Quiz

Question

Name some of the benefits of forming a relationship online.


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Answer

The absence of gating and greater self-disclosure are some of the benefits of forming an online relationship.

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Question

What is the most intense type of parasocial relationship?


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Answer

Borderline pathological.

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Question

Who came up with the reduced cues theory?

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Answer

Sproull and Kessler (1986)

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Question

What cues could replace physical cues in social media?


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Answer

Emojis and time taken to reply can replace physical cues. 

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Question

Give an example of a parasocial relationship. 


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Answer

An unrequited crush on an Instagram influencer is an example of a parasocial relationship.

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What is self-disclosure?


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Answer

Self-disclosure refers to sharing information about yourself. 

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Question

Who suggested that self-disclosure may become ‘hyperpersonal’ in online relationships?


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Answer

Walher

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Question

McCutcheon came up with the ____-Addiction model of online relationships


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Answer

Attention

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McCutchen created the Celebrity _____ scale 


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Answer

Attitude

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Give an example of a gate in absence of gating.


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Answer

Physical attractiveness

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Question

Define self-disclosure.


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Answer

Self-disclosure is sharing personal information with another person.

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Why do some psychologists (Walher, 1996, 2011) theorise that self-disclosure is greater online?


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Answer

Because of the anonymity, lack of accountability and ability to leave at any time.

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Who came up with the hyperpersonal model?


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Answer

Walher

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Who theorised the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon?


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Answer

Cooper and Sportolari

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Give an example of a non-verbal cue.


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Answer

Tone of voice.

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What is the reduced cues theory?

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Answer

Sproull and Kessler (1986) suggested that we share less online due to a reduced amount of non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. According to them, this leads to deindividuation, where reduced cues and anonymity makes people lower their standards of behaviour and have a reduced sense of individuality.

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Question

What is a counterpoint to reduced cues theory?


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Answer

We may not simply lack cues but have different cues in online relationships such as emojis and time taken to reply.

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What causes the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon, according to Cooper and Sportrolari?

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Answer

Increased breadth of self-disclosure causes the 'boom and bust' phenomenon. 

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According to Walher’s hyperpersonal model, why does self-disclosure increase in online relationships?

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Answer

Walher states that self-disclosure occurs quickly online due to anonymity, the ability to craft answers and your image, a lack of accountability and the fact that you can leave at any point.

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Question

Whose correlation study did Bargh et al. (2002) build upon to show that online relationships lead to greater self-disclosure?

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Answer

McKenna, Green and Gleason's (2002)

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Who studied online communication and found that users are often direct, asking intimate and probing questions?


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Answer

Whitty and Johnson (2009)

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Question

Give one weakness of studying self-disclosure in online relationships.


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Answer

One problem with studying online self-disclosure is that relationships rarely form all online or all offline today. This means that it is very rare that we can study ‘online relationships’ or ‘offline relationships’.

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What did Bargh et al. (2002) find?

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Answer

Bargh et al. found that those who interacted online were better able to express their true selves to their partners.

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What is deindividuation?

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Answer

Deindividuation is when reduced cues and anonymity makes people lower their standards of behaviour and have a reduced sense of individuality.

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Question

What percentage of online relationships did McKenna and Bargh (2000) find lasted more than two years?


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Answer

70%

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Question

Give an example of a gate.

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Answer

Facial expressions are a gate as they could affect attraction and are unlikely to see in online interactions.

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Why are gates absent in online relationships?

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Answer

Gates are things that hinder attraction in face-to-face encounters. While we can see some of these things online when we watch videos or video call a person, we encounter most gates  in person, such as body language and tone of voice.

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Describe some research that supports the positive effect of the absence of gating in online relationships.

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Answer

McKenna and Bargh (1999) believe the absence of gates in online relationships leads to greater intimacy. They found that 70% of online relationships lasted more than two years, much more than their offline counterparts.

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Question

Describe Baker and Oswald’s study (2010).

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Answer

Baker and Oswald (2010) interviewed 241 participants about their social media use and shyness. The questionnaires assessed Facebook use, level of shyness, perceived social support, loneliness, and friendship quality. They found a strong positive correlation between the level of shyness and Facebook use but no correlation between Facebook use and loneliness, suggesting that Facebook helps shy people overcome their shyness.

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Why does Buss’s 1989 study expose potential gender bias in the study of gating?

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Answer

Buss found that men value good looks and younger-looking partners, while women prefer resource-based characteristics. This finding suggests women are much more dependent on ‘gates’ than men, as men’s occupations and social status are often apparent from their online profiles. In contrast, women can only be judged in person by their appearance. Therefore, the absence of gates may affect women more than men.

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Why would the absence of gates in online relationships be dangerous?

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Answer

Because if we do not meet someone in person, it means they can create an online persona that may not be truthful. This could be dangerous for several reasons, including blackmail, assault and more.

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Why would the absence of gates in online relationships be positive for shy people?

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Answer

Shy people could form relationships without the pressure of meeting someone in person and without confronting the fear of being rejected.

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Question

Who found a correlation between Facebook use and shyness?

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Answer

Baker and Oswald.

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Question

What is one negative of the study of gates in online dating?

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Answer

In an increasingly online world, many of the gates that would be limited to face-to-face interaction can now be seen online through videos, video calls, and voice memos. Gating now potentially has less impact on online relationships than in the past.

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Question

When did McKenna and Bargh suggest that the lack of gates in online relationships would lead to greater intimacy?

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Answer

In 1898.

Show question

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