People’s relationship tends to be more visible on Instagram when they and their partner have higher relationship satisfaction, investment, and commitment, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. When people perceive themselves as having access to higher quality alternative partners, however, their relationships tended to be less visible on the social media platform.
“Instagram is one of the most popular social media sites in the world. Even though it’s not made for dating per se, Instagram has become central to people’s romantic lives and the ways they form and maintain relationships. This made us wonder if the maintenance activities you see on Instagram say anything about the quality of a couple’s relationship,” said lead researcher Liesel Sharabi, an assistant professor and director of the Relationships & Technology Lab at Arizona State University.
For their study, the researchers surveyed 178 heterosexuals couples regarding their perceptions of their relationships. In addition, two teams of research assistants who were unfamiliar with the goals of the study analyzed and coded 3,270 of the participants’ recent Instagram posts.
The researchers found a positive association between relationship quality and Instagram engagement. People who were more satisfied with their relationship were more likely to include or reference their partner in their Instagram posts. They were also more likely to like and comment on their partner’s Instagram posts.
“I think a lot of people are skeptical of what they see on Instagram and have this idea that if a couple seems too happy, it must be ‘fake.’ However, we found that couples who appeared happy on Instagram really did have higher quality relationships. The more we observed couples publicly engaging with the relationship on Instagram, the more satisfied, invested, and committed they told us they were in private,” Sharabi told PsyPost.
“That said, it’s important to recognize that even happy couples have their ups and downs. What you’re seeing on Instagram are the highlights and not the complete picture and day-to-day reality of what being in a relationship looks like.”
Heightened perceptions of alternative partner quality, on the other hand, were associated with fewer instances of Instagram relationship engagement. In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “The people other than my partner with whom I might become involved are very appealing” were less likely to include their partner in their Instagram posts.
Those with heightened perceptions of alternative partner quality also tended to interact with other potential partners on Instagram more frequently.
“We also found that people who paid more attention to their alternatives on Instagram felt like they had higher quality options outside of their relationship and were more likely to pursue them if given the chance. So while Instagram can be a great tool for relationship maintenance, it may also make it easier to exit a relationship if things aren’t going well by making people more aware of their options,” Sharabi said.
The researchers controlled for factors such as the length of the relationship and amount of Instagram use. But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“In terms of caveats, we collected data in the United States, yet Instagram has a global reach. How people present their relationships may look different depending on cultural norms surrounding social media use. In the future, researchers should look at how seeing the images that couples post on Instagram affects their views of their own relationships,” Sharabi explained.
“In the end, Instagram isn’t good or bad for relationships. Its effect is ultimately going to depend on the way it is used.”
The study, “Picture perfect? Examining associations between relationship quality, attention to alternatives, and couples’ activities on Instagram“, was authored by Liesel L. Sharabi and Annamariah Hopkins.