Today, the University of Missouri is promoting a study claiming that regular Twitter use is “linked to infidelity and divorce.” The study, led by University of Missouri School of Journalism doctoral student Russell Clayton and published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, found that Twitter can “be damaging to users’ romantic relationships.” To stick together, Clayton concluded, “users should cut back to moderate, healthy levels of Twitter use if they are experiencing Twitter or Facebook–related conflict.”
Is your Twitter use threatening your marriage? Who knows? The study contributes nothing that might help illuminate that question. First, it only included people who heard about the survey through Clayton’s Twitter feed or that of the Huffington Post. Then, it disqualified people whose partners (or former partners, if they were currently single) didn’t use Twitter. That left 514 participants, all Twitter users paired with other Twitter users—so, no control group. Clayton asked them questions like “Have you emotionally cheated on your significant other with someone you have connected or reconnected with on Twitter?”; “Have you physically cheated on your significant other with someone you have connected or reconnected with on Twitter?”; and “Has Twitter led to a breakup/divorce?” Clayton found that the more people logged on to Twitter to scan their feeds or send DMs, the more likely they were to report experiencing “Twitter-related conflict with their partner,” which in turn “leads to infidelity, breakup, and divorce.” (Clayton published a similar study about Facebook use last year, with similar results).
What the study didn’t do was compare the relationship problems of Twitter users with people who don’t use the network at all. It also didn’t ask about relationship problems that arise outside of Twitter—at the office, over email, over the phone, at the gym, or on online dating sites, for example. So we don’t know if Twitter increases incidents of emotional or physical cheating. All we know is that Twitter increases the likelihood of emotional or physical cheating occurring via Twitter.
It’s possible that using Twitter just allows good old-fashioned cheaters to accomplish their nefarious goals on social media instead. Or that people who use Twitter obsessively are more likely to cheat on their partners for unrelated reasons. Instead of telling us that using Twitter actually causes infidelity or divorce, it tells us is that the more time you spend on a platform, the more opportunities you have to mess up on that platform.
If that conclusion seems obvious, that’s because it is. But whenever newfangled technologies are invoked alongside longstanding social problems—like infidelity, divorce, or the failure of most romantic relationships to end in marriage—basic logic suddenly constitutes news.
Clayton told me he was inspired to undertake his studies about the fallout of Facebook and Twitter after reading that 81 percent of top American divorce attorneys say they’ve seen social media evidence increasingly used in divorce proceedings over the past few years. “The divorce rate may not be increasing,” Clayton told me, “but we do know that Twitter and Facebook are platforms contributing to divorce. We know that Twitter is causing the problems, because I asked participants whether conflicts that arose specifically from Twitter had led to breakups, cheating, or divorce.” To Clayton, that’s an insight that’s still surprising to many: Problems that originate online don’t just stay there; they can produce very real consequences offline, too.
So that puts Twitter on the same level as all other forms of human interaction. If we can start to think about Twitter like any other community, telling people to log off to stop cheating sounds completely ludicrous. If your husband can’t stop eyeing his co-workers, does that mean he ought to quit working? And if your wife is cheating with her gym buddy, does that mean that exercising is to blame? (We’d have to study it to know for sure). What we do know is that while Twitter obviously provides people a different way to sabotage their relationships, it can also open a different avenue for injecting positivity into relationships. A Pew study released in February asked online adults whether the internet has had an impact on their relationships; of those who said yes, 74 percent said the impact was positive, 20 percent said it was negative, and 4 percent said the internet had had both good and bad effects. I’m in the latter camp—sometimes relationships are good, and sometimes they’re bad, and no amount of tweets can ever change that.