How would our lives be different without social media? When our phones are often the first and last thing we see every day, it's common to wonder how social media affects every part of our lives, including our relationships. While social media has its benefits—staying in touch with those we love, getting fresh wedding inspiration, networking, or meeting new friends—our lives online can affect our realities offline. It can even become concerning when one partner's time on the internet starts to change the dynamic of a relationship.
Romantic bonds can begin through social media, but they can also be damaged by it. Whether it's a "like" on a photo or one person is talking to other people, it's easy to become jealous of our partner's experiences online. But what happens when the problem isn't caused by who we talk to, but the fact that we're using social media at all? If you've ever felt like you're competing with your partner's phone for their attention, you're not alone. The time we dedicate to our screens can change how we approach our partners in real life. We asked expert and author Leslie Shore to explain how to know when the internet is becoming a problem.
Meet the Expert
Leslie Shore is an interpersonal communications expert with over 20 years of experience. She is the founder of Listen to Succeed as well as a speaker, author, and professor on listening and communication.
Below, read on to learn how social media affects relationships.
Consider the Time You Spend Online
Shore explains that the time we spend on social media can affect our ability to communicate with those we care about. "Research shows that, on average, we spend two or more hours a day on social media," Shore says. She warns that fostering relationships online can hurt our relationships offline. "Those who have limited experience in reading people do not have the same level of social intelligence [that] previous generations possess. If this becomes the new normal, building strong, deep relationships will take more time and will be more difficult to maintain."
When we're constantly tied to our phones scrolling through Instagram, reading the news, or checking emails, we have to learn to balance this time with being offline. It's especially important to ensure we don't neglect our loved ones in favor of screen time.
"The holds our devices have on us is invisible until someone actively calls [it] to our attention," says Shore, noting that we often pay more mind to our phones than those we're spending time with. "It is almost impossible to create or enhance relationships when social media is, in the first place, taking our time and attention away from who is in front of us."
So how do we keep our relationships strong in the age of the internet? Shore has some advice on how to keep social media from becoming a barrier.
Be Extra Careful in Early Relationship Stages
While the overuse of social media at any stage of a relationship can have negative effects, Shore explains that it's worse in the early stages.
"At the beginning of a relationship, we attend to the other person because we want to get to know them," she says. "We listen to their likes and dislikes, history, family dynamics, dreams, and fears. We spend hours in conversation discovering each other; no fact too small, no story too long. The building of the relationship has newness and surprises. During this time, it is critical that cellphones are out of sight while in conversation to ensure total concentration on [each] other."
Shore also warns about the dangers of messages getting misconstrued via text, especially when you're still getting to know each other: "Texting between each other should be positive and factual," she says. "Do not allow jokes or sarcasm to creep in, as they don’t translate well and create a rift instantaneously."
If you're feeling a disconnect when you talk to your partner online or through texts, it might be best to focus on interacting in person (or try phone calls when you can't get together).
Think Twice Before Commenting and Posting
While bonding over internet jokes or posts can strengthen your connection, your partner's social media content might also become a concern. Have they posted something you disagree with, or do they share a different side of their personality online? Before confronting them, think about how the conversation would go in person—it might be best to wait until you see them again to bring up anything you're uncomfortable with. Shore advocates for the need to be mindful of our partners when interacting on social media.
"Don't respond to a post or comment out of emotion," she says. "Take time to process what you have read or seen, and allow yourself time to reflect on your thoughts before commenting out of anger or frustration. Remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinions."
In the same vein, while you may be tempted to share all aspects of your life on Instagram or Facebook, remember that your partner may not feel the same way. If it's something you wouldn't overshare with your neighbors, colleagues, and extended acquaintances in real life, it probably shouldn't be on social media either. "Keep your personal conversations personal," Shore says. "There is no need to take your private life public. Posting about your partner’s choice of a birthday present for you or gossiping about your S.O. are communications best left out of the public eye."
Don't respond to a post or comment out of emotion. Remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinions.
Always Keep Your Loved Ones First in Mind
While there are always risks involved when navigating social media and relationships, there are also ways to ensure that your communication stays strong. Shore explains that focusing on your real lives together—rather than interacting mostly online—is important to create a solid foundation to build your relationship on.
"Stay truly connected to those who matter," she says. "Don't wish your family a happy birthday on Facebook—pick up the phone or make the trip to see them. Instead of sending invites, thank you cards, and holiday cards online, send your loved ones something they can keep forever."
As your social media network grows, Shore also recommends being mindful of other people's beliefs and values. "Remember who your friends are," she says. "Before sharing your thoughts on politics or religion or posting something provocative or controversial, keep in mind who your audience is. Is it worth creating tension with your family, friends, or co-workers?"
However you approach your life on the internet, be mindful to think about your relationships in person before online. That's not to say you need to put your phone down entirely, so there's no need to delete your favorite apps. Social media can be exciting, fun, and a great way to relax (or keep up with friends from afar).
Find your healthy balance between both sides of the screen. When having fun online blends seamlessly with your relationships in real life, you'll discover that great new experiences can come from enjoying them both together.