Are you Instagram-official? - Love, Social Media, and their Impact on Each Other

Have you ever thought about the criteria used for being recognized as an official couple on social media? Maybe you felt annoyed when your partner’s new profile picture had been liked by his/her ex? Maybe you used social media after a break-up to snoop on someone you suspected to be your successor? If the answer is yes at least once, you certainly accept the importance of investigating these questions empirically. Today our relationships are strongly connected to social media platforms therefore it is useful to get a deeper insight into the answers science can offer to these questions. 


Relationships in the Digital Context

As we all have a concept on how we would like to be seen by others (Goffman’s Self-presentation theory) we also have a strong desire to control the impressions which are formed about us (1). In real life, it is impossible to regulate all the circumstances, but social media lets us present ourselves exactly the way we want. That is why identity-presentation is a (or more likely the) core motivation of social media usage (2). Since our social life frequently takes place online, our interpersonal relationships have a digital imprint and romantic relationships are no exceptions. The formation, maintenance and even the breaking up of a romantic relationship often happen in the virtual spaces of social media. However, it is not only the context but also the featured content related to a relationship that is changed on online platforms. The rules of sharing personal information on social media are expanding: when you scroll down your Facebook timeline or Instagram feed you probably notice how often information, which was considered to be private even a few years ago is now posted publicly. But what kind of impact has this phenomenon had on romantic relationships?

Does Social Media bring out the Green-eyed Monster or make us more committed?

Since social media sites have become an inseparable part of our daily routine, several studies investigated the impact of these platforms on our lives including romantic relationships. The overall picture is to say quite ambivalent. It seems that in this regard social media generates at least as much conflict as pleasure, even in the most harmonious and trustful relationships. One of the first empirical studies investigating this question found that SNSs can trigger our deep-rooted fear of abandonment because of their special features: for example, Facebook provides us with a large amount of information, but it is all too easy to misinterpret them without knowing the proper context (3). Furthermore, all our acquaintances can follow up and comment on every featured content related to our relationship, not to mention the chronicle of previous relationships which (if we are not prudent enough) can be seen and reprove by our current partner as well. In the case of Snapchat, which is more used for flirting, these negative feelings can be even stronger. A study found that because Snapchat allows its users to track with whom their acquaintances communicate the most, it elicits more jealousy than Facebook, which can easily generate tension between romantic partners (4). Instagram can also be a minefield in this regard. If there is one activity on this platform that generates negative relationship outcomes, it is the posting of selfies. Two different but similar studies found that although this form of self-promoting frequently generates jealousy, users often take the risk of creating an Instagram-related conflict or negative romantic relationship outcomes because of the positive reactions they can receive from their followers (5, 6). To prevent such awkward misunderstandings, other users try to make the existence of their relationship as explicit as it can be on social media. However, it is not necessarily the infallible sign of harmony if your timeline is full of happy couples’ pictures. A study found that individuals who are insecure about their partner’s feelings tend to make their relationship more visible on Facebook (7). Despite all this, one can find scientific evidence that highlights the benefits of social media on romantic relationships. For instance, thanks to SNSs, couples can share their happiness with their acquaintances which elicits pleasant feelings (8, 9). Not to mention text messaging through online platforms which is an instant and easy way for couples to express affection (10).

Instagram-official is the new Facebook-official

In 2018, Instagram was far more popular among adolescents and young adults in western societies than any other social media site (11). Compared to generally text-based Facebook or Twitter, Instagram offers a very clear and easy way of sharing information with pictures, videos, and GIFs, which seems to be much more relevant to young users nowadays (12). Of course, the fact that their grandma will probably not leave inappropriate comments below their posts (like she already does on Facebook) or watch their latest Instastory, can be a contributing factor as well. Consequently, romantic relationship-related content is moved from Facebook to Instagram. Today, if a couple decides to become “official” in the virtual space, they are more likely to announce it with a dyadic picture (maybe accompanied with a common hashtag) rather than a relationship status-update on Facebook. Furthermore, they will feature details about their relationship mostly on Instagram. Therefore, if we are interested in the interactions between relational factors and social media activity, it is appropriate to turn our attention to Instagram. For instance, signalling theory (which is basically a concept in evolutionary biology examining communication between individuals) is a useful tool to investigate these issues (13). Signals can be defined as guidelines to understand other people and according to the eminent media researcher, Judith Donath, this theoretical context is adequate to analyse online activity (14). As she argues, SNS profiles and activity in general can be defined as signals (15). The way we for example appear on Instagram is full of signalling: how we introduce ourselves, how many and what kind of pictures we feature, who we follow, and so on. Moreover, when it comes to relationships, it is also a signal on how we present that we have someone special in our life. As Donath asserts, online communication can easily falsify but more importantly, it can also be shaped by offline circumstances. According to a recent study, online activity can differ depending on such relational circumstances like a beginning of a new relationship or a break-up (16).

#HeartBreak in the Digital Age – The Role of Social Media after a Break-up 

Even when happily ever after is not an option anymore and the relationship ends, we have to deal with a lot of social media-related questions. For example, we have to deal with the crucial dilemma of our age: what do we do with the entire digital history of our relationship? Facebook status-updates, dozens of pictures and videos on Instagram, endless chat conversations with the ex. What are the rules of breaking-up in the online space? Wiping out every trace of our previous significant other until the very last #RelationshipGoals hashtag? Or should we let some digital memories survive the relationship? Fortunately, researchers were interested in these questions too. A study found that at the end of a relationship social media gets a new function: the opportunity to monitor the previous partner’s online activity (17). “When was he or she online last time? Did he or she post something that implies that he or she is over me?” If the break-up would not be painful enough, we can escalate our suffering by checking the ex’s profile multiple times a day. But monitoring is not the only function that social media offers us. Even when we do not communicate offline nor online directly, with the assistance of Facebook or Instagram we can easily tell our ex-partner what a great time we are having alone (18, 19). Younger people prefer to create content that is at times only meaningful to certain people and this is even more typical in the case of a break-up (20). Posts are addressed indirectly to the ex, for example taking an attractive selfie to pretend to be fine. After a break-up it is also crucial to restore our identity and self-esteem, therefore receiving more and more positive reactions to the featured posts may serve as an important coping strategy. Perhaps this is why a study found that increased activity on Instagram – e. g. selfies, party-pictures and more time spent browsing in general – can be observed in such periods (16).


To sum up, it seems that what we show on social media depends largely on our current life situation. Maybe this is because technological innovations and the online environment of social media do not really change our lives, but just give us another context for the same problems to deal with. So, what is the solution to these “digital problems”? Vanish from every social media site if we want a functioning relationship? This can be an option if we feel that social media is too harmful (21). Alternatively, we can minimize the amount of the featured private information to avoid undesired conflicts. But according to a recent study, this tendency often develops by itself: the importance of online communication typically decreases in long-term relationships (22). This implies that showing constant happiness online is less relevant if we are truly happy offline.


  1. Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY, Doubleday.
  2. Sheldon, P., Bryant, K. (2016). Instagram: Motives for its use and relationship to narcissism and contextual age. Computers in Human Behavior, 58, 89-97.
  1. Muise, A., Christofides, E., Desmarais, S. (2009). More information than you ever wanted: does Facebook bring out the green-eyed monster of jealousy? Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 12, 441-444.
  1. Utz, S., Muscanell, N., Cameran, K. (2015). Snapchat elicits more jealousy than Facebook: a comparison of Snapchat and Facebook use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18, 1-6.
  2. Ridgway, J. L., Clayton, R. B. (2016). Instagram unfiltered: Exploring associations of body image satisfaction, Instagram# selfie posting, and negative romantic relationship outcomes. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19, 2-7.
  3. Halpern, D., Katz, J. E., Carril, C. (2017). The online ideal persona vs. the jealousy effect: Two explanations of why selfies are associated with lower-quality romantic relationships. Telematics and Informatics, 34, 114-123. 
  1. Emery, L. F., Muise, A., Dix, E., Le, B. (2014). Can you tell that I'm in a relationship? Attachment and relationship visibility on Facebook. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1466–1479.
  2. Utz, S., Beukeboom, C. J. (2011). The role of social network sites in romantic relationships: Effects on jealousy and relationship happiness. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 16, 511-527.
  1. Saslow, L. R., Muise, A., Impett, E. A., Dubin, M. (2013). Can you see how happy we are? Facebook images and relationship satisfaction. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4, 411–418.
  1. Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2011). “I luv u :)!”: A Descriptive Study of the Media Use of Individuals in Romantic Relationships. Family Relationships, 60, 150-162.
  2. Pittman, M. (2015). Creating, Consuming, and Connecting: Examining the Relationship Between Social Media Engagement and Loneliness. The Journal of Social Media in Society, 4, 66-87.
  1. Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection – A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205–214.
  1. Donath, J. (2007). Signals in Social Supernets. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 231–251.
  1. Fejes-Vékássy, L., Ujhelyi, A., Faragó, L. (2018). From #RelationshipGoals to #Heartbreak – How does romantic relationship status effect the patterns of Instagram activity? (In Press)
  2. Ouytsel, J., Gool, E., Walrave, M., Ponnet, K., Peeters, E. (2016). Exploring the role of social networking sites within adolescent romantic relationships and dating experiences Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 76- 86.
  1. Fox, J., Osborn, J. L., Warber, K. M. (2014). Relational dialectics and social networking sites: The role of Facebook in romantic relationship escalation, maintenance, conflict, and dissolution. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 527-534.
  2. LeFebvre, L., Blackburn, K., Brody, N. (2015). Navigating romantic relationships on Facebook: extending the relationship dissolution model to social networking environments. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 78-98.
  1. Marwick, A. E., Boyd, D. (2014). Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New Media & Society, 16(7), 1051–1067.
  1. Gershon, I. (2011). Un-Friend My Heart: Facebook, Promiscuity, and Heartbreak in a Neoliberal Age. Anthropological Quarterly 84(4), 865-894. George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from Project MUSE database.
  1. Sanchez, V., Munoz-Fernandez, N., Ortega-Ruiz, R. (2017). Romantic Relationship Quality in the Digital Age: A Study with Young Adults. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 20, 1-10.

article author(s)