Virtual Relationships in Social Media
Self-disclosure in virtual relationships: Psychologists have investigated the effect of self-disclosure (revealing personal information about oneself) in virtual relationships- those that take place online, for example through social media. Such relationships are examples of computer-mediated communication (CMC).
Reduced cues theory: Sproull and Kessler (1986) suggest that CMC relationships are less effective than face-to-face (FtF) relationships. This is because there is an absence of non-verbal communication cues such as tone of voice, facial expressions and so on. This leads to de-individuation, where a person feels a reduced sense of individuality and a lowering of personal standards of behaviour. Therefore, CMC relationships are more likely to include impersonal, possibly aggressive communication and reluctance to self-disclose.
Hyperpersonal model: Walther (1996, 2011) suggested that CMC relationships can actually involve more self-disclosure, as the process of disclosure happens more quickly than in FtF relationships. Therefore, the CMC relationship becomes more intense and intimate more quickly, but also is more likely to end quickly (the ‘boom and bust’ idea). Self-disclosure can happen more quickly because each person has more time to manipulate their image and think carefully before crafting a response than they would face-to-face. Therefore, people can manipulate others into self-disclosing quite quickly. Anonymity may also accelerate self-disclosure (Bargh et al, 2002), because people feel less accountable (and feel less embarrassment) for their behaviour, so are more comfortable revealing intimate information.
Absence of gating in virtual relationships: A ‘gate’ is an obstacle to the formation and development of a relationship. For example, physical unattractiveness, shyness or anxiety. McKenna and Bargh (1999) suggest that such gates are absence in CMC relationships, so it becomes easier for relationships to begin and quickly become intimate. The focus is on what the person is saying, for example through self-disclosure, rather than what they look like. Absence of gating also means that people are free to create online ‘personas’ quite different from their real lives. An example of this is the online game ‘Second Life’, where people are free to create avatars to represent themselves however they choose.
- Reduced cues theory may be inaccurate, as it has been argued that there are different types of cues in CMC, rather than an absence of them. These include style and timing of messages, use of exclamation marks and capital letters, emojis and so on. Online communication has clearly been successful, which reduced cues theory would find difficult to explain.
- Whitty and Johnson (2009) looked at online communication and found that discussions are often direct, involving probing and intimate questions. This supports the hyperpersonal model explanation of why self-disclosure can take place more quickly in CMC.
- There are many different types of CMC, which may or may not encourage self-disclosure. There is evidence that self-disclosure happens less regularly on dating websites, due to the anticipation of face-to-face meetings in the future. This weakens explanations of virtual relationships, as they may not be applicable to all types of CMC.
- McKenna and Bargh (2000) found that romantic relationships that initially formed online were 70% likely to last more than two years- a higher proportion than ‘offline’ relationships. This supports the absence of gating being a factor in the success of online relationships.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided and unreciprocated. For example, a person is a huge fan of a celebrity, and may have an obsessive crush on them, but the celebrity doesn’t even know they exist.
Levels of parasocial relationships: McCutcheon et al (2002) developed the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which was used in research by Maltby _et al _(2006). Through this, three levels of parasocial relationship were identified:
- Entertainment-social: the least intense level, where celebrities are merely sources of entertainment and gossip. For example, enjoying the music of One Direction and being interested in the life of Harry Styles.
- Intense-personal: a feeling of greater personal involvement with the celebrity. For example, feeling a strong connection to Harry Styles and obsessively thinking about him, seeing him as a ‘soul mate’.
- Borderline pathological: an intense level of feeling, including fantasising and engaging in extreme behaviours. For example, spending thousands of pounds to buy clothing worn by Harry Styles.
The absorption-addiction model: McCutcheon (2002) suggested that people who form parasocial relationships often do so to compensate for a lack of fulfilment in their own lives. For example, they may be in an unsatisfying relationship (or no relationship). They are also often less well-adjusted psychologically, which may be exacerbated by a stressful life event. Such conditions make it more likely that a person with an entertainment-social level of interaction will progress to the more intense levels. Absorption refers to focusing on a celebrity and becoming pre-occupied with their lives. Addiction is where a person feels the need to have a closer involvement with the celebrity, which may lead to extreme behaviours such as stalking and delusional beliefs, for instance the belief that the celebrity wishes to reciprocate the relationship but is being stopped from doing so.
Attachment theory explanation: Attachment theorists suggests that people who form parasocial relationships are more likely to have had difficulties forming attachments in early life. Of Ainsworth’s attachment types, insecure-resistant is seen as the most likely type to lead to a parasocial relationship. This is because parasocial relationships do not carry the risk of rejection, meaning the need for an attachment can be met without this accompanying fear. Insecure-avoidant individuals are more likely to avoid all types of relationship, including parasocial.
- Maltby (2005) found that teenage girls who reported an intense parasocial relationship with a female celebrity (obsessing about their body shape, for instance) were more likely to have a poor personal body image. This supports the suggestion that parasocial relationships are formed by those who are psychologically less well-adjusted.
- McCutcheon et al (2006) found that participants with insecure attachments were no more likely to form parasocial relationships than those with secure attachments. This weakens the predictions of the attachment theory of parasocial relationships.
- The absorption-addiction model is good at describing the characteristics of those who form parasocial relationships, but is less good at explaining why or how these characteristics develop. Therefore, it is a limited explanation.
- Much research in this area makes use of self-report techniques, and is correlational. This weakens the validity of the studies and makes it hard to identify cause-effect links, therefore weakening these explanations.
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- What is the term for revealing personal information about oneself?
- What is the idea that one quality, such as physical attractiveness, makes people think more positively about a person’s other characteristics?
- Which idea suggests that people tend to form relationships with others of a similar level of attractiveness?
- Who developed the filter theory of attraction?
- What does ‘equity’ refer to in relationships?
- What model of relationships was proposed by Rusbult?
- What is the final phase of Duck’s phase model?
- What is the most intense level of parasocial relationship known as?