Difficulties in forming secure attachments with others may be linked to problematic Facebook use in adults

Adults whose close relationships are characterised by high levels of insecurity may use Facebook in problematic ways in an attempt to fulfil their attachment needs, especially if they have low self-esteem or when they experience high levels of psychological distress such as anxiety, stress, or depression, according to a study published in BMC Psychology.

Researchers at the School of Psychology at National University of Ireland, Galway investigated possible links between attachment avoidance (e.g. avoiding intimacy and closeness in personal relationships), attachment anxiety (e.g.  fearing rejection and being overly dependent in personal relationships) and problematic patterns of Facebook use (i.e. Facebook use that has been previously linked to low mood and low self-esteem), such as compulsively looking at others’ photos, over-sharing personal information and impression management (for example using photo filters to present a positive self-image). The researchers found that attachment anxiety was associated with all aspects of problematic Facebook use and attachment avoidance was associated with impression management and intrusive Facebook use that impacted upon social relationships offline.

Dr Sally Flynn, the corresponding author of the study said: “Our study is the first to apply attachment theory to better understand why people might engage with Facebook in problematic ways. Our findings suggest that Facebook may be used by some to fulfil fundamental attachment needs, especially for those with low self-esteem, who are experiencing psychological distress”.

The authors suggest that in individuals with attachment avoidance, impression management may allow them to keep connected to others, by creating a positive image of themselves, while concealing aspects of themselves which they fear may not be acceptable to others. In those with high levels of attachment anxiety, a desire for closeness and intimacy may conflict with a fear of rejection. The creation of an online identity that is likely to be accepted and liked by others – for example in the form of comments or ‘likes’ – may be one strategy aimed at alleviating these concerns.

However, screen-based mediums may not be able to truly satisfy an individual’s fundamental attachment needs; while those high in attachment insecurity may derive some comfort and relief from using Facebook in these ways, these benefits may be short-lived. According to the authors, it may thus be important for mental health professionals to take their clients’ social media habits into consideration when working therapeutically with them.

Dr Flynn explained: “Professionals involved in providing psychological and psychotherapeutic support may need to consider that for some users, specific patterns of Facebook use may be maintaining or even exacerbating negative psychological outcomes, such as low mood and depression.  For example, a person who disclosed their personal problems on Facebook when in a heightened emotional state may feel even worse if they are disappointed by the quantity and quality of the feedback that they receive from their online peers. With this knowledge, clinicians may explore patterns of Facebook use with clients, which may be helpful in providing appropriate support and adapting therapeutic interventions.”

Dr Kiran Sarma, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at NUI Galway who co-authored the paper, said: “It is important to stress that the research does not suggest that there is something damaging about Facebook or other social media services – but rather, some people network online in ways that could be considered maladaptive, exacerbating distress and vulnerability”. He also cautioned that while the findings resonate with a growing body of scientific evidence on problematic internet use, further research is needed in this important area.

To be able to investigate possible associations between problematic Facebook use and difficulties with forming personal attachments, the authors asked a total of 717 adult Facebook users to complete a series of online questionnaires, which measured depression, self-esteem, attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety along with aspects of the respondents’ specific Facebook use.

The researchers caution that the cross-sectional nature of the study does not allow for conclusions about cause and effect. The study may also be limited by its use of self-report data and non-probability sampling which have the potential to introduce bias to the findings. While psychological distress and self-esteem provide some explanation regarding the association between attachment and problematic Facebook use, further research exploring a range of additional interpersonal factors relevant to attachment is warranted.

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