It takes only a couple of clicks to break off a Facebook friendship, often causing an irreparable rift in a real-life relationship. Dr. Jennifer Bevan, an associate professor of communication studies at Chapman University in Southern California, wanted to explore this in more detail. She teamed up with two Chapman undergraduate students for a study, discovering what happens emotionally when someone is unfriended.
Bevan worked together with undergrads Jeanette Pfyl and Brett Barclay for the study, which digs deeper into why people unfriend others and what happens in the unfriendee’s mind. Taking a group of 547 participants, they found that the closer the connection (i.e., significant other or a relative), the more strife the unfriend action caused. While grievances such as posting objectionable content or rude comments received the most negative responses, the researchers found that most people were unfriended because of something that happened offline.
The study also found that the dynamics of unfriending changed depending on who made the original contact. If the person who initiated the Facebook relationship discovered that it was severed by the other person, they felt greater negative emotion and dwelled on the action more.
Bevan discussed with AllFacebook the power dynamics at play of friending and unfriending:
It’s kind of a power thing. You put yourself out there, and there are very clear markers. In relationships, there’s not a clear marker. If you ask me who started my friendship with my best friend in the entire world, I don’t know what I would say. But on Facebook, you can say, “She friended me,” or “She unfriended me,” and it’s a very clear marker. I think that’s where sometimes the emotions and the thoughts can get really elevated because you have these clear indications. Your number of friends goes down, literally, instead of not even realizing that the friendship has faded away.
But why do people unfriend each other? Among the 547 participants, 167 believed that the Facebook relationship likely vanished because of an offline event, 100 said it was because they really didn’t know each other that well or there was minimal contact, and 84 people didn’t know why. Only 11 said the online friendship was severed because they posted often about polarizing topics.
Of the participants who said they knew which of their friends broke off the relationship, 116 said it was a former friend, 95 said it was an acquaintance, 54 claimed they were unfriended by a former romantic partner (only two said they got Facebook dumped by a current romantic partner), 33 said it was a friend of a friend who they had met but didn’t know well, and 20 said they were unfriended by a family member.
Readers: How do you react to being unfriended?
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