Facebook relationships increases contact with friends and family but it also advertises your relationship breakup. Su-Lin Tan reports on the effects of social media on relationships.

A facebook friend wheel - a data visualisation of facebook friend connections. Image: Superkimbo

Recent community surveys have shown social media can have a negative impact on relationships but it can also help to improve communication in relationships.

The latest survey by Relationships Australia has revealed users of social media have a mixed reaction to the impact of social media on their relationships.

Centre Manager for Relationships Australia Ballarat centre manager, Sue Yorston, said: “Staff at our centres often has anecdotal discussions about counselling challenges and we are hearing trend of social media related problems. That prompted the survey.”

Many respondents to the survey indicated social media has made it easier for them to maintain relationships with friends and families and also to reconnect with people from the ‘past’.

But respondents also indicated their heightened concerns about the privacy of online communication, the impersonal nature of online communication and jealousy about online relationships.

Respondents are worried that the use of social media and technology can lead to addiction to chat rooms and sex sites. They also raised the issue of bullying of young people; something now called ‘cyber bullying’.

Health and counseling practitioners also took part in the survey.

Practitioners revealed their clients often bring up Facebook and MySpace as one of the main causes of relationship problems.

Yorston said: “With social media, we now have ‘virtual affairs’. People are cheating on each other online.

“Warring parents have arguments and heated discussions on social media and their children see them, leading to breakdowns in families.

“Also, when one partner in a relationship spends excessive time accessing social networking sites it can really isolate the other partner.

“Finally, the amounts of time people spend on Facebook means less real time spent with the real people.”

Other examples cited in the survey include partners and parents ‘prying’ or ‘checking’ on partners’ and children’s social media account or email without their consent and relationship breakups playing out on Facebook – all leading to conflicts in relationships.

But practitioners say the use of social media can enhance relationships post-separation.

Facebook and email can allow for more business-like and safer communication between separating partners. A quick Skype call or Facebook post to say ‘goodnight’ can facilitate safe communication between children and non-primary parents.

A similar survey and study by the Australian Psychological Society shed more light on this social conundrum.

The 2010 survey, ‘The Social and Psychological Impact of Online Social Networking’, indicated most people have had some negative social media experiences often in the form of unwanted contact and people posting inappropriate or upsetting information about them online.

But many people also said social networking has allowed them to attend more social events when compared to before they were using social networking sites. This suggests the use of these sites increases both online and face-to-face social interactions.

In fact, people preferred to communicate in person rather than using online social networking sites. This shows people are not necessarily moving away from face-to- face interactions but perhaps using social networking to enhance their in-person communications.

This discovery has provided some comfort to the proponents of the benefits of physical interaction in human development.

Yorston said: “As human creatures, a lot of our communication is non verbal. So it is crucial to relationship building that we have eye contact, for example, and not one dimensional contact.”

“Early research also shows that for the brain to function well there is a need for live interaction between people.”

“Instant emailing stops the mind from ‘free thinking’ or ‘dreaming’ which are processes that allow the subconscious of the mind to process images and ideas.”

Subject experts on this area also agree the negative effects of social media on relationships outweigh the positives.

Cyber-psychology researcher for Cyborg Australia, Karyn Krawford, said: “Research shows there are little benefits to forming a relationship with a computer screen.

“Increased time online reduces people’s ability to empathise and takes them away from healthy living.

“The Pew Research Centre indicates that there are actually benefits to relationships in keeping in touch via email but show little benefits in connecting via social media.

Relationships Australia is committed to using the findings from their survey to spearhead a project in examining literature and research on this issue.

The organisation wants to use the information gathered to develop contemporary techniques to combat these emerging problems.