Study Finds Adults May Use Facebook to Fulfil Attachment Needs

Aug 10 2018 Posted: 10:08 IST

NUI Galway study finds difficulties in forming secure attachments with others may be linked to problematic Facebook use in adults

A study carried out by researchers from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway have found that 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  today (10 August 2018) in the journal, BMC Psychology.

To be able to investigate possible associations between problematic Facebook use and difficulties with forming personal attachments, the authors asked over 700 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 investigated possible links between attachment avoidance (avoiding intimacy and closeness in personal relationships); attachment anxiety (fearing rejection and being overly dependent in personal relationships); and problematic patterns of Facebook use (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 (using photo filters to present a positive self-image).

The study 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 Facebook when in a heightened emotional state. In addition to this, these individuals were more likely to use the site intrusively, such that it impacted upon their sleep, work/study, and social relationships. The researchers also found that those people with high levels of attachment avoidance were more likely to engage in impression management on Facebook, and had a greater tendency to use the site intrusively, to the detriment of their offline social relationships.  

Dr Sally Flynn, lead author of the study carried out at NUI Galway, 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 high levels of 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 be important for mental health professionals to take their clients’ social media habits into consideration, when working therapeutically with them.

Dr Sally 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 the School of 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, increasing 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 read the full study in BMC Psychology, visit:


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