- The effects of online surveillance and couple visibility may vary according to the stage of a relationship.
- When Facebook surveillance and couple visibility was high, relationship quality was high.
- Those in longer-term relationships deemed Facebook monitoring as less acceptable.
Social media has made us far more transparent and our behaviour far more conspicuous than ever before, and this may act to our advantage or disadvantage. Those currently in romantic relationships are aware that social media can be used to track their partners or enable them to engage in what has been termed online surveillance (checking up on partners online). Additionally, those in relationships can engage in what may be termed couple visibility (such as posting a couple’s relationship status, photos or any information related to their relationship).
The effects of each of these behaviours on relationship partners may vary depending on the stage of the relationship and the gender of the partner. For example, online surveillance seems generally to be a little more accepted in newly-formed couples compared to more established relationships, whereas research on couple visibility by Nicole Muscanell and colleagues (Muscanell, Guadagno, Rice & Murphy, 2013) has suggested that gender differences are evident, with women taking the Facebook official status more seriously than men. In addition, disputes regarding a couple's Facebook official status are related more to lower levels of relationship satisfaction in women compared to men.
Chiara Imperato and colleagues sought to investigate perceptions of couple visibility and online surveillance on Facebook from the perspective of each relationship partner by using a sample of heterosexual women (Imperato, Everri and Mancini, 2021). Their method involved recording women’s own surveillance and online visibility behaviour and also how they assessed their partner’s surveillance and visibility behaviour. Ultimately, they were looking to find out how this affected each participant’s experience of jealousy and their evaluation of the quality of their relationship.
They predicted that romantic jealousy would provide a link between Facebook behaviour and relationship quality. In essence, when surveillance behaviour decreased and couple visibility increased, this reduced jealousy and ultimately increased relationship quality.
The researchers used several measures:
- Facebook Intensity Scale, which assessed the number of friends and the amount of time spent on Facebook, general connectedness to Facebook and how it was integrated into participants’ lives. The scale employed items such as 'Facebook is part of my everyday activity.'
- Facebook Surveillance Scale, which assessed participants’ Facebook surveillance behaviours (‘I regularly check my partner’s activity on Facebook’) and also Facebook surveillance with respect to their partner (‘I think my partner pays close attention to my friends’ profile pages.')
- Facebook Couple Visibility, assessing participants’ own visibility behaviours (‘I am happy if my partner posts a message on my Facebook profile’) and also Facebook couple visibility behaviour (‘My partner is happy if I publish photos showing us hugging on Facebook.')
- Facebook Jealousy Scale, which included Items such as ‘I am worried about my partner falling in love with someone on Facebook.'
- Relationship Quality Scale, including items such as ‘How much are you satisfied with your relationship?’
Overall, Facebook surveillance and couple visibility were found to be positively related to relationship quality. In other words, in relationships where Facebook surveillance and couple visibility was high, then relationship quality was high. The researchers explain that using Facebook to make relationship information visible to others was a way of expressing relationship commitment. Similarly, engaging in partner surveillance was interpreted as showing an interest in a partner and what they were doing and not a method for tracking or stalking a partner. This finding is not consistent with previous research, in which only couple visibility and not surveillance seemed to increase relationship satisfaction.
Interestingly, when the surveillance and visibility were considered from a partner’s viewpoint, participants’ interpretation of Facebook surveillance behaviour was a little different in the way in which it became related to relationship quality. More specifically, when participants thought that their partner might be engaging in Facebook surveillance of them, they viewed such surveillance behaviour more negatively. Therefore, different meanings became attached to the same behaviour depending on who was doing the surveillance.
Quite clearly, Facebook surveillance and couple visibility may derive from what each partner deems acceptable behaviour in their particular relationship, and there is always the danger that surveillance and visibility behaviour may lead to relationship misunderstandings, especially early on when relationship ground rules have not been properly established.
Furthermore, in the early stages of a relationship, partner surveillance and couple visibility may be perceived differently. For example, couples in newer relationships might believe online surveillance to be a method of checking whether their partner is trustworthy. In addition, there is also a danger that one or both partners may think that engaging in couple visibility on social media in order to publicly display commitment may be indicative of one partner trying to move the relationship on too quickly, which ultimately may be detrimental to a relationship.
However, the researchers found that even some of those in longer-term relationships deemed Facebook monitoring as less acceptable. Maybe in long-term relationships, partners no longer feel the need to be monitored, because trust has already been established.
One point to note is that the participants employed in this study were women, who overall tend to report more Facebook jealousy than men. In addition to this, extensions to this study might look at factors such as personality type and attachment style in relation to Facebook surveillance and couple visibility behaviour. The results nevertheless tell us more about the effects of social media on romantic relationships.
Imperato, C., Everri, M. & Mancini, T. (2021). Does Facebook ‘threaten’ romantic relationships? Online surveillance and couple visibility behaviours in romantic jealousy and couple relationship quality in a sample of Italian women. Journal of Family Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13229400.2021.1987295.
Muscanell N. L., Guadagno, R. E. Rice, L. & Murphy, S. (2013). Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Green? An Analysis of Facebook Use and Romantic Jealousy, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 16, (4).