Is Social Media in Relationships a Force for Good or Evil?

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Is Social Media in Relationships a Force for Good or Evil?

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist.

I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path-
It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely.

I swear a lot, think life is too short to waste on drama & bullshit, and dream of a world where we ALL belong.

Tara Thomas

Hey, I'm Tara, relationship coach & couples therapist. I'm definitely a weirdo, and have never traveled a conventional path- It sucks because the world isn't designed for misfits, sometimes it's myself I'm rebelling against, and being a weirdo can be lonely. I swear a lot, think life is too short...

With social media omnipresent in our lives, how can we keep our sense of agency in the way we use them? And is social media in relationships a force of good, or evil? Tara Thomas and Kia Handley discuss the impact of social media in intimate relationships. [Includes audio & full transcript]

Table of Contents

    With social media in relationships now omnipresent, how can we keep our sense of agency in the way we use them? And is their influence on our relationships a force of good, or evil?

    Tara Thomas and Kia Handley discuss the impact of social media in relationships.

    [Full Transcript Below - Please note this blog is a living piece and is continually updated as this is such an important issue of our times. You can download the transcript from the radio show, or read the living document below.]


    You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on socials here, or listen to more of her works here: This Retro Life & Let's Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

    While no longer behind the microphone at ABC Newcastle and NSW, she now spends her days working in communications and advocacy in the Aged Care and Community Services sector. 

    Episode Transcript

    Kia Handley:

    It is not uncommon these days to make friends on line. There are people who you might only know and speak to in the online world and on social media. And usually that's fine, nothing to see here, but when does it cross a line?

    Let's talk about this this morning. We have Relationship Coach, Tara Thomas - . Good morning.

    Tara Thomas:

    Good morning.

    Kia Handley:

    How common are online-only relationships of all kinds, friendships included?

    Tara Thomas:

    I think it's becoming more and more common, you know, and as social media platforms become more of a tool of that everybody has, and particularly in a time of COVID, it's natural that we would increase our amount of online connection with others.

    Four People sitting side by side on a couch, they are all looking down at their phones.
    Photo by Johnce on Getty Images Signature

    Are We Spending More Time Connecting on Social Media than Face-to-face?

    Kia Handley:

    As we're talking about something that's going to stay. I think doing things online and virtually is something that is definitely going to stay. So we will be living in this space a little bit more.

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah. And I would agree, and it's not inherently a bad thing. I want to get really clear on that because I'm probably going to talk about some outcomes that aren't great from using social media platforms.

    But it's not inherently a bad thing. It's really the way that we use it. And what the impact of that can be on our relationships. That becomes a problem.

    Kia Handley:

    When can we sometimes find ourselves connecting online maybe in an easier way than we do with people? Face-To-Face.

    Tara Thomas:

    Well, I mean, it's something that you can do instantly wherever you are, you know, you always have your phone or your iPad or your laptop, and it just becomes easier to connect with that person online.

    And also when you're talking to someone online or on social media, whether it be a friend or a stranger or someone in a, you know, in a group that you're a part of, it's really easy to kind of fill out their personality and responses with what you wish they were. Whereas in real life, it can be tricky to navigate things with a real person. So often it seems easier to open up to someone online than it does with, with someone immediately in your vicinity.

    People Lie so Much Online!

    Kia Handley:

    At the same time (as the person who has just gone down a very big MTV Catfish: The TV Show, wormhole) what I'm learning is people love to lie! And it's very hard to know the truth sometimes!

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah. It's, I mean, it's, it's impossible almost to check the truth of what someone's telling you online, particularly when we can just make up a profile… use whatever photo you want.

    There's actually a really interesting app. I think in the Netherlands, it's a neighborhood, a neighborhood community group. And one of the rules on that app is that you have to use your actual photo and you have to use your actual name and that's significantly reducing the way that people behave negatively because, you know, you're, you're worried you're going to maybe run into them at the supermarket and have to be accountable for the way that you're speaking to them online.

    A phone with the Messages folder open, there are 5 messaging apps. The phone is on a grey fabric background.
    Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

    What is the Role of Social Media in Our Lives?

    Kia Handley:

    Just how easily does social media fit into our lives these days?

    Tara Thomas:

    So if we, if we look at the, the place that social media holds in a broader context in our lives I want to be really clear on how that fits and to do that first, we really need to identify the purpose of social media as defined by the people who have created it.

    And primarily that purpose is growth for the purpose of making money. And we can be clear that that's the purpose because the metrics that they use for success, engagement with their apps and platforms and the advertising investment, it's not, you know, how many friends people make or how much people enjoy it, or the positive impacts on the world. It's money and it's marketing.

    So then within that broader context, we play a role in that in the attention economy. And that role is that that your identity in the attention economy is either as an eyeball, that's looking at content or a creator that's making content to draw other eyeballs. And so in that context, you want to be really clear when you're using a platform like social media of what it's been designed to do, and then what the impact of that might be on your relationships and to endure the rest of your life.

    What are the Benefits of Social Media in Relationships?

    Kia Handley:

    Yeah, because where do we see some issues coming up in this space?

    Tara Thomas:

    So, I mean, let's first talk about some of the positives, because I don't want to always hack on social media. There are some really, really great things that it, that it facilitates for us to do.

    So, you know, for example, if you think about a restaurant, their measure of success is money, but also you can go there and you can meet your friends there and you can, you know, spend time with your partner and you can have beautiful food. So I'm not saying that because money is their primary goal, that it's bad….

    And so when you're looking at social media platforms, you're able to stay in touch with friends and family. You can see them celebrating milestones, you know, having babies, getting new jobs, having birthdays getting to see photos of what they're up to.

    You can stay connected to local events to activities that you could take part in that you might love, but you weren't aware of you can join movements and research a company you can learn, you can build your own business or brand.

    So they're all of these really wonderful outcomes of using social media platforms.

    A silhouette of a person wearing a hoodie in front of a red smoke background
    Photo by Eli Meshau on Unsplash

    Is Social Media an Evil Force in Relationships?

    And then when you look particularly in your intimate relationships, there are some really negative outcomes that that can happen. So I put these in three categories. They are categories that Esther Perel uses to categorize the relationship issues.

    Those categories are;

    • care & closeness
    • power & control
    • respect & recognition.

    If you look at respect and recognition in, in social media use in an intimate relationship, you're looking at things like jealousy, trust, infidelity transparency, like, can your partner see you're doing privacy in the context of you know, are you sharing things about your life that your partner is not comfortable with? Are you, are you an oversharer or a chronic overshare? And perceptions also falls into that respect and recognition. So, you know, are you posting like you're single.

    And quite often I see this in the couples that I work with, one partner will post photos of them on social media on holiday drinking champagne in the bathand cut out their partner…. So it looks like they're single...

    So the identity that you're kind of projecting to the world is quite different to how your partner feels like your life really is, and it feels like they've cut you out and that can be an issue.

    And then when we're looking at things like care and closeness that's more in the context of you know, your partner may feel excluded. So you're always talking to other people online, or they might want more of your time or more of your attention.

    So they're not feeling loved or prioritized because of their social media use.

    And then finally the more sinister sort of area is when you move into power and control, which is trying to you know, either control what your partner is doing. So telling them how long they're allowed to spend online, or really policing that.

    And also the gas lighting that kicks in there around particularly around jealousy. You know, if you're saying, you know, how come you're always talking to that person online, and then the gas lighting comes in, Oh, that's nothing you're just paranoid. You're being over reactive. When really, you know, you, maybe you're across it. Maybe you are crossing a line that your partner needs to articulate to you and that you need to really work

    How Do We Know if We're Crossing The Line?

    Kia Handley:

    At the same time. I know you and I have had conversations….

    You know, it kind of comes up in everything that we talk about, that there does need to be an awareness of how much time you are spending doing lots of things, including social media, when it comes to quality time with your partner.

    But is this a different level altogether when you're maybe sharing emotional conversations with people, or as you said, posting in a way that makes it seem like you're not in a partnership?

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah, I think so. In you know, in a sense that you're talking about where we're deciding how long we want to spend doing things, that's a really important consideration.

    And I'd be asking you: how do you want to design a life together so that you're not just getting by, but you're thriving as a couple?

    And the choices that you're making in every minute- what am I going to do in this minute? Am I going to work? Am I going to sleep? Am I going to watch TV? Am I going to do something fun with the family?

    You know, we only have a finite amount of time in our lives and, and you, you get to choose how you allocate some of those minutes. And you might just want to check how many minutes am I happy to allocate to social media?

    How Much Time on Social Media is Positive?

    There's been a study done on users of Moment, which is an app that measured phone use.

    And one of the elements that they looked at was the percentage of users that were happy with the time they spent on each app. So the people who were most happy were on things like FaceTime, mail, phone messages, messenger. So the things that keep in contact with people, and then when you start to get around the 45% mark of people who regret their social media use, that's looking at social media apps.

    [You can view the results of the study here]

    So then,  you know, you're working out how much time you want to spend on those things.

    And then you're working out what is the impact on my relationship and really, why am I prioritizing Facebook or Instagram over my, partner's a request for conversation? what's really going on with the underlying causes there?

    Because it's not even that they are on those apps…It's never, you know, it's never the actual thing that they're doing. It's what we make that mean. And then that triggers our beliefs about who they are and who we are and what our relationship is. And over time that gets compounded. So we start to kick into the opposite to Rose colored glasses.

    How Do We Address this Issue With our Partner?

    Kia Handley:

    How do we have that conversation? Because what is, let's say you and I are in a relationship, lucky us…

    Tara Thomas:

    I mean, it would be easier… [laughs]

    Kia Handley:

    It would be so easy. We're going to start that Island very, very soon…

    but what would be, what I might feel like is totally acceptable, might be a little bit triggering for you in terms of who I'm talking to and how much I'm talking to them or what I'm posting about.

    So how do we have that conversation so that each partner understands, but also can still, I guess, use social media for those benefits that we mentioned?

    Tara Thomas:

    Yeah. So the first thing always when you're approaching something with your partner, that feels like it's challenging is that you do that in a way that's invitational rather than adversarial.

    So what that means is that you're saying, instead of, you know, you always do this, or you spend too much time on this, or I hate how you do this, or put down your phone…invite them to do something different.

    So invite them to you know, say, Oh, would you, can we go, and can we go and sit outside and have a conversation about your day now? Or can we go out to the movies now, whatever the thing is that you would rather be doing, invite them to that instead of criticizing what they're doing, because policing your partner is never helpful.

    And it's a shared issue between you. It's not their lack of discipline or care. And if it is, then that's a whole different thing, you know, maybe you should, you should go and get help.

    So you want to talk about you want to invite them to share quality time with you and you want to work out: What's the tipping point for both of you that you can agree on where it's okay to use social media? Is that 20 minutes a day, is it an hour a day?

    What's the tipping point where for both of you, it starts to move into addiction and isolation and alienation from all of those positive benefits that we talked about? And then work out tools that help you to reinforce that time.

    [There are some great tips and tools to regain your wellbeing and control here]

    [Read: Is Your Phone Damaging Your Relationship? 20 Strategies to Take Control.]

    Because when you rely on continually making the choice not to use it, you're absolutely going to fail.

    So there are some really great tools to set screen, time limits. I am a, I'm a classic iPhone addict. And so what I've done is I've set times that I'd like to use social media.

    Let's say 20 minutes on this particular day. And then my partner has my screen time code.

    So when I reach that time, if I want to use more, I have to ask him for it. And if I ask him, he just punches it for me, it's fine, or he'll text it to me and then change it….There's no, you know, there's no friction there, but just knowing that I have to ask that I have to say, Oh, Hey, I just want to scroll a little bit more. I mean, it's enough to stop me from using it.

    So there are, there are some little tricks and hacks that you can use to, to really reinforce that because it's easy, you know, to fall down that, as you said, YouTube, so YouTube, wormhole, wormhole, yes. It's really easy to fall down into one of those wormholes and lose sense of time. So

    Kia Handley:

    So… passive- aggressively laughing very loud at a show that you're meant to be watching together so that they say, "Oh, no, what happened?" That's not the way to deal with it?

    Tara Thomas:

    [laughs] Does it work?

    Kia Handley:

    Ah, no….[both laugh]

    Tara Thomas:

    If it works - go nuts! Passive aggressive…., but I probably don't condone it.

    I think what would be good to do is to protect time where there's no judgment for using it because it's, it's not inherently a problem. So if you were to say before seven o'clock or after, you know, whatever the thing is… between eight and nine go nuts between nine and 10, we watch our show.

    Whatever works for you as a couple -  protects the time that you can use it, where there's no judgment. And then also protect the couple time so that you are spending quality time together.

    And, and that can sometimes just avoid some of those dramas of, of getting stuck on the phone. And be kind when you're reminding your partner, because these things are designed to addict you, that it's not a fault in, in them or you it's. It's just a great design!

    Kia Handley:

    Well, I'm glad he's at work this morning, Tara. [both laugh] Lovely to chat as always. Thank you.

    Tara Thomas:

    My pleasure

    Kia Handley:

    Relationship Coach Tara Thomas talking you through social media in relationships.

    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "social media" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same, for example instead of "...people who you might only know and speak to in the online world ." I have said "...people who you might only know and speak to in the online world and on social media."

    This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.