Kris Gowen: Teens on social media’s impact on relationships: Survey

by Kris Gowen

The Teen Advisory Board (TAB) for My Future-My Choice, a peer-led sexuality education curriculum developed in Oregon, conducts a survey every year to gain insight into the communities in which they live. This year, because Oregon just instituted a new law that requires sex education to cover healthy relationships, the TAB members asked fellow high school students for their insights on this topic.

The short survey (11 questions), which was conducted statewide by the 10 TAB members, included some questions about how social network sites impact romantic relationships. Two hundred 9th-to-12th-grades responded – a good mix of rural, urban, and suburban youth. Their answers provide great insight into how we should be talking about relationships in our media-heavy society.

Here are the findings from the three questions about social media:

  • 75% said that social media affects romantic relationships “negatively,” 18% positively, and 7% said that social media had no effect
  • 27% said Facebook is one of the top two ways people their age begin romantic relationships; 19% reported that Facebook is one of the top two ways people their age end relationships.
  • The most common way relationships begin and end is texting: 77% of the teen respondents chose texting as one of the top two ways relationships begin; 82% chose texting as one of the top two ways relationships end.

What struck me most about the responses is that the vast majority of young people social media has a negative effect on romantic relationships. Few said it had a positive effect. And the fact that so few stated that social media has no effect on relationships is a sign that this topic is a must for sex ed today. Yet, to my knowledge, no established curriculum covers it.

A loss of context

Why the negative outlook on social media? It wasn’t asked in the survey, but it does remind me of danah boyd’s reflections on teen “drama,” where young people use social media to hurt, push and provoke each other. It’s also a place where words are misunderstood, given how little context surrounds them. The work of CJ Pascoe (see Chapter 4 on Intimacy here highlights how technology increases youth expectations of availability of their partners. Although most of her research focuses on the positive ways social media impacts romantic relationships, one of the more negative effects is that social media pressures young people to stay in constant contact with each other, which can put stress on the relationship and create more room to question the loyalty each has to the other. Social media also allow each partner to monitor the activities of the other, which may cause suspicion or hurt feelings if left out.

Despite young people’s negative attitudes about social media and relationships, social media can play a meaningful role in beginning and ending relationships. That a more than a quarter of teens surveyed chose Facebook as a key “way” that teens start relationships and nearly a fifth chose it as a major way teens end relationships is significant. That’s quite a few couples who see their romantic fate unfold on that site. It begs the question (not asked on the survey) if getting together and breaking up occur in the more public places on Facebook or in private messaging. Pascoe, in her work, notes that, when relationships end, the online world can be a place where sides are taken and negative comments can become rampant.

Texting fate?

But the most common way young people begin and end relationships? Texting. Over 3/4 chose it as a way relationships begin and even more as a way they end. In second place was face-to-face, with over half (63%) choosing it as one of their top two ways to both begin and end relationships: a distant second to the less personal way. And when you combine texting and Facebook as the facilitators of relationship status, face-to-face interactions pale by comparison.

More resources are needed to support the integration of social media into current sex ed materials. For now, the dominant discourse that addresses social media and youth is related to internet safety, a narrative focused almost exclusively on dangers. While safety on the Internet is important, we need to make sure we are talking to youth about the very real role social media plays in their relationships.

One of the few places that tackles the important issue of ending relationships online is the Boston Public Health Commission. Click here for some great handouts and lesson plans.

Kris Gowen, PhD, is an author, sexuality educator, and researcher at Portland State University.

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