Social scientists are increasingly looking at online friendships and trying to figure out if they carry the same emotional baggage that real-world friendships do. A preliminary study suggests that breaking up, even if it’s on Facebook, is hard to do.

The more you use Facebook, the more likely you are to experience “rumination and negative emotion” when someone unfriends you, according to a study published in the July 2012 edition of the scholarly journal Computers in Human Behavior. The study by Chapman University researchers Jennifer L. Bevan, Jeanette Pfyl and Brett Barclay is one of the first to look at the psychological consequences of so-called relationship termination on social networks.

Other factors that increased the pain of being unfriended included:

  • How close the person was to the person that had removed them from their friend list.
  • Whether they were able to figure out who unfriended them, as opposed to just seeing a drop in the number of active friends they had.
  • Who initiated the initial friend request. 

The researchers also measured people’s perceptions on why they had been unfriended, asking if they felt it was because they posted too frequently on Facebook; posted polarizing views; made crude comments; if they had been unfriended for an upsetting, offline event; or because the person did not know them well.

“Intense Facebook usage may mean that users are particularly invested in their relationships with their Facebook friends and thus may respond with greater rumination and negative emotion when they lose one of these friends, which compromises how they are presenting themselves and being perceived by others online,” the researchers concluded.

When Being Unfriended Hurts Most

While the most common reason given for being unfriended was an offline event, people experienced the most negative emotion when they believed they were unfriended for Facebook-related reasons, such as posting too frequently, posting about polarizing topics or making crude comments.

People also seemed to be hurt more when they had made the initial friend request and were later unfriended by the recipient. “To some extent, being the individual who initiates the Facebook friendship – a clear, direct online act that is signified with a marker – places an individual in a less powerful position, as they must wait and see if their friend request is accepted, rejected or simply ignored. Individuals who are unfriended by someone they initially 'friended' may wonder why the unfriender even accepted the friend request, and such thoughts could give rise to rumination and negative emotion,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers found that people who spent more time on Facebook were most likely to be hurt when a Facebook friendship went south. That seemed to stem from the notion that those people, by spending more time on Facebook, had more invested in the online friendships.

The Parent Trap

Generally, people were most hurt when unfriended by someone they considered to be close to: family members, and current or former friends or romantic partners. To a certain extent, former romantic partners expected to be unfriended in certain circumstances.

The one differentiation from the above patterns was a user's parents. The researchers noted “some close relational partners, such as parents, can be unwelcome Facebook friends for undergraduates... how relationships that are close offline are uniquely negotiated on [social networks] seems to be evolving.”

It may also suggest people view relationships with people they see regularly offline as different in an online context.

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