Attachment issues linked with Facebook use, new study finds

By Joe Leogue

There is a link between those who have attachment issues in their relationships and their ‘problematic’ use of Facebook, according to a new psychological study.

The research from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway has suggested those who suffer low self-esteem or suffer anxiety, stress, or depression may use Facebook in certain ways to fulfil their attachment needs.

The study sought to investigate possible links between Facebook use and attachment avoidance — characterised as the avoidance of intimacy and closeness in personal relationships — as well as a potential connection between use of social media and attachment anxiety, where a person fears rejection and is overly dependent in personal relationships.

The researchers asked more than 700 adult Facebook users to complete questionnaires which measured depression, self-esteem, attachment avoidance, and attachment anxiety along with aspects of their specific Facebook use.

The types of Facebook use researchers sought to examine included compulsively looking at others’ photos, over-sharing personal information, and ‘impression management’ — using photo filters to present a positive self-image — all of which has been previously linked to low mood and self-esteem.

Dr Sally Flynn, lead author of the study published in the BMC Psychology journal, said this research is the first “to apply attachment theory to better understand why people might engage with Facebook in problematic ways”.

She said:

“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 research found that those people with high levels of attachment anxiety were more likely to engage in social comparison and impression management on Facebook, and were more likely to disclose personal information on the social media platform when in a heightened emotional state.

They were also more likely to use Facebook in an intrusive way that would impact on their sleep, work or study, and social relationships.

Those with high levels of attachment avoidance were also more likely to engage in impression management, and use the site intrusively, to the detriment of their offline relationships.

Researchers believe those with high attachment-avoidance levels may use photo filters to allow them keep connected to others by creating a positive image of themselves and disguise aspects of themselves they fear may not be acceptable to others.

The creation of an online identity that is likely to be accepted and liked by others - in the form of Facebook comments or ‘likes’ – may be a strategy aimed at alleviating those who suffer from a desire for closeness and intimacy, and a fear of rejection.

The researchers fear the short-term comforts provided by social media will not fully satisfy attachment needs and believe those providing supports to people seeking psychological help need to consider that specific patterns of Facebook use may be maintaining or even exacerbating negative psychological outcomes.

“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,” said Dr Flynn.

With this knowledge, clinicians may explore patterns of Facebook use with clients, which may be helpful in providing appropriate support and adapting therapeutic interventions, she said.

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