Between the Ashley Madison website breach and subsequent data dump and the headlines declaring “Facebook, divorce linked in new study,” it is tempting to think that new forms of media have been taking a heavy toll on marriage. It is true that changes in electronic mass media over the past 25 years have been nothing short of revolutionary. Media has become vastly more interactive and personalized, with the potential to connect individuals and families more easily and rapidly than ever before. Social science is still grappling with how new technologies such as smart phones, social networking websites, and video games are related to family functioning and outcomes. Most studies that have looked at these issues have used small samples, and those examining couples have not always interviewed both partners or spouses.
To help fill these gaps, my colleague Sarah Tulane and I conducted a study1 of more than 1300 married couples that investigated how spouses’ use of television, video games, and social networking websites were associated with their reports of marital quality. We drew our data from a national panel of married couples who were randomly selected. To measure media use, we asked the participants how much time they spent on a typical weekday watching television, using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and playing video games. To examine couples’ marital quality, we asked both spouses how happy they were in different areas of their marriage, how often they fought about different topics (e.g., money, chores), and how likely they thought that they were to divorce.
The more husbands used social media websites, the worse both they and their wives felt about their marriage. Specifically, women whose husbands spent more time on social media reported lower levels of marital happiness. And the more husbands used social networking websites, the more conflict and the higher the level of perceived divorce likelihood reported by both wives and husbands. These links were weak, though. For example, going from “less than an hour” on Facebook to “more than an hour but less than two hours” (a two-step jump) would be associated with a decline of .12 points in wives’ marital happiness, a .25-point increase in wives’ reports of conflict, and between a .12- and .16-point increase in wives’ and husbands’ perceived divorce likelihood.2
Why is husbands’ use of social networking websites related to their reports of marital quality, but wives’ use is not? We think it has to do with gendered social norms. Research suggests that women use communication to build their relationships more than men do.3 Thus, social media might simply be another way women communicate and connect with others. But when men use social networking websites, it may violate social norms and expectations about their behavior, which may lead to marital problems. The data did support offer support for this idea; 20 percent of wives said they “never” used social networking websites, versus 40 percent of husbands, suggesting it is more normative for women to spend time on social media. Alternatively, it may be that men who frequently use social networking websites are already in a deteriorating marriage and they are using these websites to seek either social support outside of the marriage or alternative romantic partners.
Playing video games was only a problem when spouses differed in the amount of time they spent on it. Both wives and husbands reported lower levels of marital satisfaction and higher levels of perceived divorce likelihood, and husbands reported more conflict, when there was a difference in how much time they spent gaming. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether wives or husbands played more; the effect was the same.
Television use was associated with the measures of marital quality in only one way. Wives reported being less happy in their marriage the more husbands reported watching television.
Our study suggests that new forms of media do relate to marital quality. Again, though, the associations were all somewhat weak. That may mean new media is a significant problem for a small subset of couples in our sample, or that it’s a minor problem for many couples. As technology continues to evolve, its relationship to couples’ relationship quality will, too.
Jeffrey Dew is an Associate Professor at Utah State University. He studies the association between families’ resources and their relationship quality.
1. Dew, J. P., & Tulane, S. (2015). The association between time spent using entertainment media and marital quality in a contemporary dyadic national sample. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 36, 621–632. doi: 10.1007/s10834-014-9427-y
2. Perceived divorce likelihood was a single item measure on an 11-point scale. Conflict was the mean of three items on six-point scale. The marital happiness scale was the mean of four items on a five-point scale.
3. Baym, N. K., Zhang, Y. B., Kunkel, A., Ledbetter, A., & Lin, M. C. (2007). Relational quality and media use in interpersonal relationships. New Media and Society, 9, 735–752. doi:10.1177/1461444807080339.