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The Nature of Virtual Relationships in Social Media

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding virtual relationships, with many deeming them as superficial and dishonest. However, some argue that our online selves encourage stronger relationships and can help those who struggle with shyness.


Virtual Relationships

Researchers assume that people will self-disclose more online. This is due to the degree of anonymity associated with social media platforms. Face-to-face disclosure brings in danger of being rejected or criticised. In contrast, online disclosure does not have the same risk. This is similar to the 'Strangers on a Train' phenomenon (Rubin) where people felt more comfortable disclosing personal information to a stranger because they were unlikely to ever meet again which further strengthens the assumption that virtual relationships have higher levels of self-disclosure because individuals feel more anonymous.

Online relationships lack the personal factors of face-to-face interactions such as physical appearance and mannerisms. Such factors act as 'gates' or barriers and can often determine who we initially approach. Online, such barriers are surpassed. A consequence of the removal of gates such as appearance or shyness is that an individual's 'true self' is expressed more online. Zhao et al found that social media platforms can empower 'gated' individuals as they are able to make themselves seem more socially desirable. Yurchisim adds to this, they found that although online daters often stretched the truth, they remained mostly consistent with their real identity.


Supporting Research for Virtual Relationships

Supporting research for online relationships derives from a study conducted by Rosenfeld and Thomas. They studied 4000 adults, some of whom had access to the internet at home, and others who didn't. They found that 71.8% of the participants with the internet at home also had a romantic partner whereas only 35.9% of those without internet access had one. This research implies that the internet can help people find a romantic partner. However, all of the participants were from the US so has a beta cultural bias; the findings may not apply to different countries and cultures.

Support for virtual relationships has found a biological basis for self-disclosure on Facebook. Tamir and Mitchell used an MRI and found a strong activation of brain regions associated with pleasure (the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area). These areas were particularly stimulated when an individual was talking about themselves, especially to a friend or family member. This research implies that humans naturally enjoy talking about themselves which explains why sharing personal data on social media platforms may feel so rewarding.

An advantage of social media platforms such as Facebook is that they allow shy people to have a better quality of relationships as they can surpass gates which would normally prevent socialising. Baker and Oswald strongly believe that Facebook allows shy individuals to overcome barriers. They supported this belief with a survey of 207 students. They found that students who scored high on shyness had a greater use of Facebook and quality of friends. In contrast, those who scored low on shyness had no connection between Facebook usage and quality of friendships. These findings show that Facebook can assist shy individuals to develop high-quality friendships whilst having little or no effect on those who aren't shy and their relationships.

Limitations of Virtual Relationships

Critics of virtual relationships claim that they are less meaningful; Pullman argues that they are superficial and lack a genuine and deeply personal connection that can only be developed in a face-to-face relationship. However, despite this claim, Rosenfeld and Thomas have found no research to support this belief.

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Cooper and Sportolari argue that although individuals often self-disclose more online, these relationships do not last long - this is known as the 'boom and bust' phenomenon. People self-disclose at a fast rate so online relationships become very intense very quickly (boom). However, due to a lack of underlying trust and the absence of a genuine understanding of each other, these relationships are unstable so are difficult to sustain (bust). This model suggests that although individuals self-disclose more online, such friendships are unlikely to last because they seem superficial.


Are Virtual and Physical Relationships Seperate?

Physical and virtual relationships are often considered separate from each other, however, some researchers claim that this may not be the case. Zhao et al claim that the digital world and reality are not completely separated; an individual's 'digital self' enhances their overall identity. Our online profiles have become a source of identity in the offline world as well. They also claim that our 'digital self' can even help individuals connect to others face-to-face. For instance, a long-distance relationship may be strengthened and sustained over social media platforms.

Wrapping It All Up

People tend to disclose more online due to a sense of anonymity. This anonymity also allows individuals whose physical appearance, mannerisms, age, gender, race or personality may hinder socialising face-to-face.

There is a lot of research to support this claim, despite original assumptions that virtual relationships are less meaningful.

In this modern age, most of us use the internet and most of us have talked to strangers on the internet. Do you really think it is possible to develop relationships just as meaningful online as they can be face to face?


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Angel Harper

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