Virtual relationships in social media - Relationships

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Virtual relationships in social media


Virtual relationships involve non-physical interactions between people communicating via social media, with the advent of the internet providing increased opportunities for such relationships to develop. Virtual relationships can produce high levels of intimacy, especially between less socially skilled individuals, as they are not confined by the barriers that face-to-face relationships involve. Self-disclosure involves the revelation of personal information about oneself to another, with the anonymity of virtual relationships allowing such self-disclosures to occur without fear of embarrassment. Therefore intimacy develops more quickly and deeply than with face-to-face relationships, as the relationship is based more on meaningful factors, such as attitudes and interests, than on superficial factors, like levels of physical attractiveness. The fact that virtual relationships are not restricted by the usual gating (limiting) factors found with face-to-face relationships is a great benefit to those who lack physical attractiveness, social skills, etc. as it gives them a chance to build intimacy through self-disclosure, with such relationships often progressing to becoming real-life relationships. There is a danger, though, of individuals misrepresenting themselves in order to exploit others, as well as the issue of partaking in risky behaviour, such as sexting, where sexually explicit images are shared. There is also a danger of individuals substituting face-to-face relationships for virtual ones.


Fig 9.4 The growth of the internet and other social media has seen a huge increase in virtual relationships

Focal study

McKenna et al. (2002) assessed virtual relationships by getting participants to interact either for 20 minutes with a partner in person on 2 ’real’ occasions or via an internet chat room first before meeting face to face. In the final condition participants interacted with 1 partner in person and another via an internet chat room, but unbeknown to both partners they were actually the same participants (the order in which people met in this final condition was counterbalanced). Each participant was paired with an opposite-sex partner on 10 occasions. It was found that partners liked each other more when they met via the internet than face to face in all situations because communications were seen as more intimate. This supports the idea that in face-to-face interactions superficial gating features, such as degree of physical attractiveness, dominate and overwhelm other factors that lead to more intimate disclosure and greater attraction.


• Mishna et al. (2009) found that most 16—24 year olds considered virtual relationships to be as real as their physical relationships and that the internet played a crucial role in adolescents’ sexual and romantic experiences, illustrating the importance and acceptance of virtual relationships by the younger generation.

• Schouten et al. (2007) found that people high in social anxiety revealed greater self-disclosure in virtual relationships due to the lack of non-verbal cues in online communications, supporting the idea that people who have problems socialising in the physical world are able to self-disclose more in virtual relationships.

• Bargh et al. (2002) found that intimacy developed more quickly with virtual than with face-to-face relationships because of a lack of gating features that typically prevent intimate disclosures in face-to-face relationships. This supports the idea that a lack of gating helps virtual relationships to grow more quickly and intimately than face-to-face ones.

Positive evaluation

Image Self-disclosure in virtual relationships can be more honest and intimate as there is little danger of such disclosures being revealed to one’s real-life social circle.

Image Online interactions take four times longer than face-to-face interactions but give individuals time to evaluate what has been communicated to them and to consider a ’perfect’ response, making the quality of interactions superior to that of face-to-face communications.

Image The absence of gating features in virtual relationships means there are potentially lots more people to form relationships with online as virtual relationships focus on common interests, attitudes, etc. rather than on more superficial gating features, such as level of physical attractiveness.

Negative evaluation

Image Research has not considered that limiting gating features differ between different groups of people, for instance age and level of physical attractiveness are more important gating factors for females than for males.

Image A danger of self-disclosure in virtual relationships is that individuals may present their ideal-self to their virtual partner, rather than their real-self, faults and all. This leads to idealisation of a virtual partner, which the person cannot live up to in reality.

Image Social media may create pressure for individuals to conform to acts of intimacy they are reluctant to do, for example being pressured to send sexually explicit pictures via the internet.

Practical application

Virtual relationships could be used as a therapy for the socially inept to learn social skills essential for developing real face-to-face relationships. They could also be used to help those suffering from a fear of social situations to overcome such phobias.