Study notes

Relationships: Virtual Relationships

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA

During the last decade, social media has increasingly become an important part of everyday life. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter have millions of people logging in every day; many of them communicate daily with people with whom they have never met face-to-face.

The prominence of virtual relationships in people's life has made it a fascinating topic for psychologists to study; even more so as initial research suggests that the nature of online communication is distinctly different from our social interactions in real life.

Virtual Relationships in Social Media

One prominent difference between face-to-face and virtual relationships is the fact that self-disclosure tends to occur much faster. One reason for this is the anonymity associated with online relationships; people tend to hold off disclosing personal information in real life for fear of ridicule or rejection, unless they are confident that they can trust the person and that information won't be leaked to mutual friends. However, there is much less risk of this in virtual relationships, so people can share personal experiences and thoughts without much risk of the intimate information getting to the people they know.

Walther (1996, 2011) proposed the hyperpersonal model of virtual relationships, suggesting that, as self-disclosure in online relationships happens earlier than in face-to-face ones, relationships quickly become more intense and feel more intimate and meaningful. They can also end more quickly, however, as it is difficult to sustain the same level of intense self-disclosure for a long time. Walther also suggests that virtual relationships may feel more intimate because it is easier to manipulate self disclosure online than face-to-face. Participants in online conversation have more time to 'edit' their responses to present themselves in a more positive light; Walther calls this 'selective self-presentation'. Projecting a positive image will then make an online partner want to disclose more personal information, increasing the intensity of the relationship.

Social psychologists suggest that nature of virtual relationships is very close to the 'stranger on the train' phenomenon, described by Rubin (1975). He suggests that we are more likely to share personal information with a stranger because we are likely never to see them again.

However, Sproull and Kiesler (1986) suggested that online relationships might be less open and honest than face-to-face ones, because in real life we are relying on a lot of subtle cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, and these cues are absent in virtual communications (Reduced Cues Theory). According to this theory, reduction in communication cues leads to de-individuation because it diminishes people's feelings of individual identity and brings on behaviours that people usually restrain themselves from displaying, such as aggression. This may make online communications more aggressive, and the consequence of this is less self-disclosure from other people, as they may fear becoming victims of verbal violence.

Another difference between online and face-to-face interactions is absence of gating. In real life, our attraction to other people is greatly influenced by their appearance, mannerisms and factors such as age and ethnicity, limiting our choice of potential partners. In virtual interactions, however, these barriers ('gates') are absent; this creates more opportunities for shy and less attractive people to develop romantic relationships. Even when these factors are discovered later, when relationships move from virtual to the face-to-face phase, they rarely decrease an already-developed attraction, as a result of the feeling of intimacy brought by more open self-disclosure.

The absence of gating also means that people can establish virtual identities they could never create face-to-face. A shy person can become outgoing and extraverted, for example. 

Research Examining Virtual Relationships

Whitty and Joinson’s (2009) research clearly demonstrates the effect of virtual environment of self-disclosure. The discovered that in online discussion forums both questions and answers tend to be more direct, probing and intimate than in everyday face-to-face interactions.

Furthermore, Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) showed the importance of online communication for developing romantic relationships. They investigated whether there was a link between having internet access at home and being involved in a romantic relationship. Out of 4,000 participants studied, 71.8% of those with internet access were married or had a romantic partner, compared to only 35.9% of those without internet access. These findings suggest that a virtual environment helps people to establish and maintain romantic relationships.

Baker and Oswald (2010) suggest that the absence of gating in virtual relationships may be particularly useful for shy people. They asked 207 male and female participants to complete a questionnaire, scoring their answers in terms of shyness, internet use and perception of quality of their friendships. They found that those people who scored highly on shyness and internet use, perceived the quality of their friendships as high; this correlation was absent for people with low shyness scores. The findings imply that as online communication helps people to overcome their shyness, so the quality of their face-to-face communication also improves.

Zhao et al. (2008) claim that the absence of gating, and more meaningful self-disclosure online also has positive effects on people's offline relationships. As they can create an online identity that is appreciated by others, it enhances their overall self-image and increases the quality of their face-to-face relationships as well. This supports the suggestion 

Evaluation of Virtual Relationships

The positive impact of virtual environments on developing romantic relationships is supported by research. For example, Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) found that out of 4,000 participants studied, 71.8% of those with internet access were married or had a romantic partner, compared with only 35.9% of those without Internet access. The findings suggest that the virtual environment helps people to establish and maintain romantic relationships, endorsing explanations for virtual relationships.

Paine et al. (2006) suggest that the degree of self-disclosure depends on whether a website user anticipates the information to become available to a wider audience or just to close friends. In the first case, people present an 'edited' version of themselves, trying to create a socially desirable identity. In the second case, however, people are willing to disclose more personal information, as they are relatively confident in their friends' acceptance. This contradicts the claim that gating is absent in all virtual relationships, as there is the possibility that information can become publicly available which may reduce the quantity and quality of self-disclosure.

People are involved in both online and offline relationships every day; it's not an either/or situation. As such, our offline relationships tend to influence what and how we choose to disclose online, and vice versa. This means that there are fewer differences between online and face to face relationships than explanations seem to suggest, and research examining online relationships often fails to take into account the effect of these relationships on a person’s offline interactions, and vice versa.

Researcher such as that by Sproull and Kiesler (1986) argues that, instead of increasing self-disclosure, online relationships often lead to a decrease in it. The claim that this is because virtual relationships lack many subtle cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice and reaction times, which lead to deindividuation (a feeling of complete anonymity and loss of control) and this increases aggressive behaviour. People rarely want to disclose personal information to an individual who is blunt and aggressive.

However, this claim has been rejected by Tidwell and Walther (1995), who argue that in virtual relationships people also use subtle cues, such as the time taken to respond to their post, or emoticons and emojis. According to them, non-verbal cues in online interactions are not absent, they are just different.

Most of the research examining virtual relationships was conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As technology is changing rapidly, so is the nature of online relationships; therefore, psychological research in this area risks becoming outdated by the time it is published. This lowers the temporal validity of research into online relationships.

Issues & Debates: Virtual Relationships

Research into virtual relationships is based on the experiences of mainly Western, technologically developed cultures. Internet technology is not readily available in some countries, so the conclusions about the development and effects of virtual communication on romantic relationships cannot be applied to them. In addition, attitudes to self-disclosure are different in different cultures. For example, Nakanishi (1986) found that, in contrast to American culture, women in Japan preferred lower levels of self-disclosure in close relationships. This demonstrates that the level of self-disclosure depends on cultural norms, and may affect the communication styles online. This lowers the validity of research into virtual relationships, limiting the range of relationships it explains.

There are also important gender differences in virtual relationships. McKenna et al. (2002) found that women tended to rate their relationships formed online as more intimate, and valued self-disclosure, especially in regards to emotion, more highly than men. Men, on the other hand, preferred activities-based (such as common interests in motorsports) disclosure, and rated their online relationships as less close than face-to-face ones. This suggests that research into online relationships may show alpha-bias, as it assumes that males' and females' experiences on virtual relationships are different. However, it could be that male and female experiences of virtual relationships are similar and there are methodological issues with the research in this area that exaggerate the differences (e.g. the choice of interview/questionnaires as a research tool).

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