Social networking has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. For example, researchers find, time and again,1,2 that interactive networking sites are helpful in maintaining relationships with our close friends and family as well as with our acquaintances. But these sites have also changed how we end our relationships. The best example of this is the ability to “unfriend” someone on Facebook. With the click of a button, you are able to terminate your Facebook relationship with anyone you had previously friended. However, when a friend decides to cut you off, you receive no notification that you have been unfriended. In fact, you’re likely to only notice the change in friendship status when your total number of Facebook friends goes down or if you search for the person who unfriended you and notice they are no longer listed as one of your friends.
Thus, with the unique nature of Facebook unfriending in mind, two of my students and I sought to determine how Facebook users respond to being unfriended.3 We considered Facebook unfriending as a form of relationship termination that would result in the unfriended individual experiencing general negative emotion and rumination (i.e., experiencing unwanted, intrusive thoughts about the unfriending). We also predicted that unfriended individuals would experience different levels of these negative emotions and thoughts in relation how individuals use Facebook (i.e., how intense their usage is) and aspects of the unfriended relationship (i.e., how close the partners were and who originally friended whom).
To test these predictions, we conducted an online survey of 547 adult Facebook users who had been unfriended. That survey revealed the following:
- Facebook users reacted to being unfriended with more negative emotion and rumination…
- …when they were intense Facebook users (defined as the extent to which users are involved actively in interacting on Facebook).
- …when they knew exactly which of their Facebook friends unfriended them.
- …when the participant (i.e., the individual who was unfriended) had originated the friend request.
- Unfriended individuals also ruminated more when the person who unfriended them was a close relational partner (e.g., a friend or immediate family member) and the more they used Facebook to connect with their existing social contacts.
In addition, we asked the unfriended individuals to tell us why they thought they might have been unfriended by selecting from a list of possible reasons.4 Most participants indicated that they were likely unfriended in response to an offline event that had occurred (e.g., a break-up or a conflict). Further, though the fewest participants felt that they were unfriended for Facebook-related reasons, such as posting polarizing or crude comments, those who did experienced the greatest negative emotion and rumination. This was an unexpected finding that should be explored in future research.
This was the first study to consider the thoughts and feelings of individuals who are unfriended on Facebook, and we learned that the experience of being unfriended can differ according to a number of factors. However, there is much more to learn about how we relate to one another online, including how we stop relating.
1Foon Hew, K. (2011). Students’ and teachers’ use of Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 662–676.
2Raacke, J., & Bonds-Raacke, J. (2008). MySpace and Facebook: Applying the uses and gratifications theory to exploring friend-networking sites. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 11, 169–174.
3Bevan, J. L., Pfyl, J., & Barclay, B. (2012). Negative emotional and cognitive consequences to being unfriend on Facebook: An exploratory study. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1458-1464.
4Sibona, C., & Walczak, S. (2011). Unfriending on Facebook: Friend request and online/offline behavior analysis. In Proceedings of the 44th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. Hawaii: Computer Society Press.
Dr. Jennifer Bevan – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Bevan’s research interests center upon interpersonal and health communication, including the negotiation of difficult interactions such as ongoing conflict, jealousy, sexual resistance, uncertainty, and topic avoidance, as well as related psychological and physical health correlates of these experiences