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Could Facebook Use End a Marriage?

COM study: social media use tied to reduced marital satisfaction, divorce rate

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It turns out that spending countless hours talking to friends in front of a screen can negatively affect your most important relationship—the one with your spouse.

A new study conducted by James E. Katz, the Feld Family Professor of Emerging Media Studies at the College of Communication and director of the school’s Division of Emerging Media Studies, and two other researchers found a correlation between using social network sites (like Facebook), spousal troubles, and the divorce rate. Titled Social network sites, marriage well-being, and divorce: Survey and state-level evidence from the United States, the study was recently published online in Computers in Human Behavior. The authors say their findings show that heavy use of social networks—specifically Facebook—is “a positive, significant predictor of divorce rate and spousal troubles” in the United States.

Katz coauthored the study with Sebastian Valenzuela and Daniel Halpern, professors from Pontifical Catholic University of Chile’s School of Communications.

“The study looked at data to understand human behavior as it’s affected by communication technology, especially technologies that are mobile-based,” says Katz, who is also director of BU’s Center for Mobile Communication Studies. “We believe being aware of this situation will empower Facebook users to better understand the implications of their activities and then allow them to make much more informed decisions.”

To conduct their study, the researchers first looked at data from married individuals collected between 2008 and 2010. They compared divorce rates across 43 states with Facebook penetration—the number of Facebook accounts in each state—divided by the total population. They found that a 20 percent increase in Facebook users in a state could be linked to a 2.18 percent growth in the divorce rate. Even when researchers factored in variables such as employment status, age, and race, the correlation remained constant. While the finding shouldn’t necessarily be “interpreted as a causal effect,” they wrote, it could be a “significant predictor of divorce rates.”

Noting that further studies were needed using individual level data, the researchers next examined data from 1,160 married people collected in a 2011 University of Texas at Austin study that had polled married 18- to 39-year-olds on questions designed to measure the quality of their romantic relationship. The poll asked respondents how happy they were in the relationship, whether their parents were divorced, and if extramarital sex existed in the relationship.

James Katz, Director, Division of Emerging Media Studies, Boston University BU College of Communication COM

“The apparent association between the use of Facebook and other social networking sites and divorce and marital unhappiness in the United States raises troubling questions not only about how we use these tools, but how their use affects marriage,” says James E. Katz, COM’s Feld Family Professor of Emerging Media Studies. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

On this individual level, non–social network users reported being 11.4 percent happier with their marriage than heavy social media users. And heavy social media users were 32 percent more likely to think about leaving their spouse, compared with 16 percent for a nonuser.

While Katz describes the two separate findings as startling, he says it makes sense that people who are unhappy in their marriage would turn to Facebook to find other people, adding that even the opportunity for meeting new people may help precipitate discontent with a marriage. Facebook has actually capitalized on this by “recommending” friends and groups for users. In this way, individuals may turn to Facebook more frequently for social support, the study says.

“The apparent association between the use of Facebook and other social networking sites and divorce and marital unhappiness in the United States raises troubling questions not only about how we use these tools, but how their use affects marriage,” Katz says. “The institution of marriage, already under siege in many quarters, seems to be facing yet further assault from people’s growing enthrallment with social media.”

The study is indicative of the type of work being done at the Center for Mobile Communication Studies, Katz says, adding that the center hopes to continue studying various types of human communication. The center, which Katz started in 2004 at Rutgers University, relaunched this past April at BU under his leadership, with the mission of helping the world understand the social, psychological, and organizational consequences of mobile communication.

“Before the center started, I saw that mobile devices were transforming social relationships, public transportation, and how people spent their time, but very little scholarly attention was given to how they affected social interaction and our internal feelings,” Katz says. “Given that gap, I thought it would be great to form a center to let scholars share ideas and to further stimulate research on the topic and serve as a clearinghouse.”

In the future, Katz says, the center will host events, launch courses, and continue research that will bring together faculty from departments within COM (such as journalism, film, and advertising) and from sociology, anthropology, psychology, international relations, and computer science, and from the School of Law, to name a few.

Read the full study here.

11 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

11 Comments on Could Facebook Use End a Marriage?

  • Chen on 06.02.2014 at 8:48 am

    Statistics helps a lot!

  • Mark Palmer on 06.02.2014 at 9:25 am

    So, FB use contributes to unhappy marriage? Or unhappy marriage contributes to FB use?

    • BU Today writer Amy Laskowski on 06.02.2014 at 10:08 am

      The study isn’t identifying a causal relationship between Facebook use and unhappy marriages. In the study, the researchers note that it’s still unclear whether FB use leads to unhappy marriages, or whether people unhappy in their marriage spend more time on Facebook.

      • Dan Cusher on 06.02.2014 at 11:58 am

        Amy, the first sentence in your article very clearly claims a causal relationship: “It turns out that spending countless hours talking to friends in front of a screen can negatively affect your most important relationship—the one with your spouse.”

        Don’t you think that’s irresponsible?

        • Spencer on 06.03.2014 at 1:26 pm

          Ouch – yeah, that’s a pretty clear claim of causality. And in light of the fact that the researchers themselves cautioned against drawing that sort of conclusion – a fact mentioned in the story itself – perhaps that lead should be rewritten.

  • Lillith on 06.02.2014 at 9:58 am

    This kind of article / study makes me crazy. Too shallow. Too generalized. Too much assignment of cause when it is more likely just part of an array of symptoms.

    Most likely folks are already unhappy in their marriage and then complain about it on FB or use FB to find other people. They would probably have divorced anyway. Accelerating the process and communication doesn’t change the outcome.

    If you live in a small town, get married, are unhappy but have no other choices, you stay with it. If you live in the city and there are other choices, you are much more likely to make a change out of your unhappy marriage because there is somewhere else to go. FB just brings ‘the city’ to everyone.

    And what about people choosing more carefully what they say on FB? Being more concious of how and what they communicate with everyone?

    I’m married, happy, and both my husband and I use FB extensively. We say nice things to each other and about each other. Write each other love notes. We get support and approval from our friends for our happy relationship. It is very empowering. We also talk about our different and mutual friends and reading on FB to each other in person. We post things to each other and look over each other’s shoulders to see things. It is very enriching for us and our relationship.

    It isn’t FB or other social media’s fault if people behave poorly or dysfunctionally online. They do it in person too. Having it written down and witnessed by more people is just a magnifying glass. People choose to be honest or dishonest, to complain or complement, to talk negative or positive messages.

    Social media can be fabulous and so can your relationships with mates and friends. FB doesn’t tell you what to write or how to behave.

    • Bjorn Eraker on 07.14.2014 at 12:16 am

      The article claims causality in its headline. Whether this is poor judgement on the part of the journalist who wrote it or a deliberate attempt at creating a sensational headline, I do not know. I do know it’s lousy journalism.

      Bjorn Eraker
      Associate Professor,
      Univ. of Wisconsin

  • Jenna on 06.02.2014 at 10:28 am

    Lillith, there is no need to be defensive. This study does not identify a causal relationship between Facebook usage and marital (dis)satisfaction. This study simply shares the fact that a statistically significant relationship exists between Facebook usage and marital dissatisfaction, which in my opinion, is not something to be ignored. As the article suggests, further research is necessary to explore the reasons for the existence of this statistically significant relationship.

  • Steve on 06.02.2014 at 2:18 pm

    It would be helpful to extend this study using data or metrics provided by Facebook. Or perhaps find a way to determine what is the divorce rate for people that do not have a Facebook account?

  • Kelly on 07.05.2014 at 2:40 pm

    Yes, this is the problem with invoking theory after the fact. The researchers might now the difference between correlation and causality (though some of their comments as sketchy as well) but writers/journalists and much of the general population do not. The causal relationship side of this story is all over the web already.

    Our own research shows that (as theory would predict) Facebook-using couples report greater relational satisfaction as the overlap in their friendship network increases. Not a surprise but probably won’t generate the headlines that “Facebook causes divorce” will.

  • lee on 07.05.2014 at 2:41 pm

    If 16% of nonusers think about leaving their spouse, and 32% of heavy users think about it, then heavy users are actually TWICE as likely to think about leaving their spouse.

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