Medically reviewed by Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD. — Written by Maté Jarai
Social media can affect all types of relationships in both positive and negative ways.
People can use social media to stay connected to long-distance friends and family members or improve communication with their partners, children, and healthcare professionals.
In contrast, social media use can lead to less quality in-person time spent with loved ones and relationship dissatisfaction. These drawbacks may be related to pre-existing relationship issues or psychological conditions.
This article examines three positive and negative ways social media can affect relationships.
Positive effects of social media on relationships
Social media can affect relationships in the following positive ways.
1. Helps boost connectivity
According to recent research, social media use has a positive impact on social connection if people use it actively.
Family members and friends do not always live in the same city, or even the same state or country. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are quick and convenient ways for long-distance loved ones to stay in touch.
People can post updates about themselves and others in their lives, such as spouses and children, as well as share photos of vacations and other important family events. Additionally, people can tweak their privacy levels and share more personal information or pictures through individual or group messages.
These and other social media apps provide ways for people to video chat in real-time, further helping them feel more connected.
2. Helps improve communication
Margaret E. Morris, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus, conducted a 2020 review of how people in various types of relationships use technology. Morris found that it is not the specific type of technology people use but how they use it that can bring value to the partnership.
Morris discusses the benefits of various types of technology. One example is a parent sharing a self-help app with a child to work through an argument. In discussing romantic relationships, Morris highlights how sharing images via social media can also feel like an extra way to communicate. Using tools such as WhatsApp, and texting through an argument, may also help some people communicate through writing. This allows a person time and space to formulate the right words when face-to-face conversations prove difficult.
3. Aids sexual gratification
Concerning romantic relationships, social media might actually help partners achieve sexual gratification. More specifically, this refers to pornography consumption on social media.
During a 2019 study involving 379 participants, researchers found pornography consumption may significantly help a person’s sexual gratification in their romantic relationships. However, the degree to which participants felt this improvement was dependent on the person’s sexual confidence and sexual compulsivity.
The following are some negative ways in which social media can impact relationships.
1. Fuels functional impairments
Substituting social media interactions for face-to-face communication may impact not only existing relationships but also the ability to form new relationships.
For example, while some researchers note the necessity for more research on social anxiety and social media use, it is possible for people with social anxiety to experience continued functional impairments — e.g., being uncomfortable or unable to form and engage in face-to-face relationships — when they replace in-person interactions with social media use.
Furthermore, failing to make or maintain in-person relationships may also appear as a consequence of social media use.
During a 2021 study at Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, researchers found that more than half (59%) of the 300 participants reported prolonged use of social media had impacted their social interactions, negatively affecting family relationships and friendships while also making face-to-face communication more difficult. However, the study consisted only of students who identified as female aged 17–29 years, so more research is necessary.
2. Decreases quality time and relationship satisfaction
Excessive social media use can negatively impact quality time, create conflict, and reduce relationship satisfaction — whether the relationship is romantic or not.
During a 2021 study, researchers used Instagram and the app’s time-tracking capability to learn more about the connection between social media and relationship satisfaction.
They found an increase in Instagram usage led to a decrease in relationship satisfaction and an increase in conflict and negative outcomes. Furthermore, the dissatisfaction, conflict, and negative outcomes triggered an addictive use of Instagram.
On the flipside, making daily sacrifices for the relationship partner had a positive effect on relationship satisfaction and decreased the likelihood of conflict and negative outcomes.
However, there is also the issue of phubbing — the act of snubbing a person in a social setting by focusing on one’s smartphone. For example, if two people sit down for a face-to-face conversation and one continues to scroll social media apps and check notifications, that person is phubbing the other.
Numerous studies and research materials show that many people feel phubbing is rude and goes against social norms. Phubbees, or people who have experienced phubbing, report a reduced sense of emotional connection, empathetic concern, and interpersonal trust.
Additionally, phubbing may lead to heightened jealousy between romantic partners, as well as weaken their bond and lower their satisfaction with the relationship.
3. Provides an avenue for infidelity-related behaviors
“Infidelity-related behaviors,” such as communicating with alternative partners, can lead to relationship dissatisfaction, breakups, and divorce. Social media provides such an avenue for those behaviors.
While there is not much empirical evidence regarding social media infidelity-related behaviors (SMIRB) and marital relationships, there is growing research on the topic.
For example, researchers conducted a 2017 surveyTrusted Source of 338 married or cohabiting partners on SMIRB. In addition to existing materials such as the Quality of Marriage Index and Experiences in Close Relationship Scale-Short Form, participants completed a survey specific to this study. Question topics revolved around online activities, emotions, and secrecy.
A small percentage of people reported participating in social media infidelity-related behaviors. However, researchers found that more participation in these behaviors was significantly related to lower relationship satisfaction, higher relationship ambivalence, and other relationship concerns.
Regardless of the relationship type, ideas for managing social media use around relationships include:
- putting away their smartphones while spending time together
- planning activities that do not leave space or time for scrolling
- leaving their phones outside the bedroom
- avoiding reaching out to old romantic relationships
Tips for general social media management
Ways to manage social media usage during everyday life include:
- moving social media apps away from the home screen or into folders
- turning off social media notifications
- installing internet browser extensions that limit or block social media access on computers
- setting time limits for using social media apps on smartphones — for example, through iPhone’s built-in Screen Time feature or Android’s built Digital Wellbeing
- committing to a social media detox
Risks and dangers of social media
Additionally, social media may bring risks unrelated to relationships.
For example, social media use — including problematic social media use — may:
- have associations with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem — although some studies have limitations
- spread misinformation about health issues
- exacerbate existing dangerous behaviors, for example, the possible link between social media and heavy alcohol consumption
- lead to less physical activity and poor sleep patterns
- decrease productivity at home, school, and work
Social media can have both positive and negative effects on interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.
While the advantages of social media and relationships tend to occur naturally, the disadvantages seem to be associated with existing relationship problems or underlying psychological concerns.
It is important for people to manage social media usage, as too much time spent on social media can negatively impact numerous aspects of life.