Spending time on social networking sites can lead to jealousy toward romantic partners, a new study indicates.
The results are based on a survey of more than 300 college students, and reveal a vicious cycle that plays out in the digital ecosystem called Facebook and ends in a frenzy of jealousy feeding jealousy.
Facebook, which announced its 200 millionth member this year, lets users set up profile pages on which "friends" post comments, photos and other banter, for the most part.
Here's how Amy Muise of the University of Guelph in Ontario and her colleagues think the ugly green-eyed monster rears its head:
Student spends time on Facebook. He or she monitors the profile page of a significant other, finding ambiguous information about their partner that they otherwise may not have access to. This new information stirs up jealous feelings in said student, who then scours for more Facebook information that further fuels the fire.
This escalating cycle can become addictive, according to the new research published in the August issue of the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior.
In the surveys, participants answered questions about demographic factors, Facebook use and jealousy. They rated on a scale from "very unlikely" to "very likely" 27 jealousy items, including: "How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?" and "How likely are you to monitor your partner's activities on Facebook?"
On average, students spent nearly 40 minutes a day on Facebook and had an average of about 300 friends.
About 75 percent of students were at least somewhat likely to add previous romantic or sexual partners as Facebook friends, and just as many reported their partner had added previous significant others. Almost all participants said their partner was at least somewhat likely to have Facebook friends who they don't know.
And the more time a person spent on Facebook, the higher they scored on the jealousy scale. This result held regardless of personality and relationship factors, including a person's propensity toward jealousy, self-esteem, trust and commitment to the relationship.
Jealousy is jealousy
Such jealousy triggers are not new.
"It seemed like jealousy was still being triggered by the same things that jealousy is typically triggered by," Muise said, "such as seeing a partner interact with a past romantic or sexual partner, an attractive member of the opposite sex, or ambiguous scenes involving a partner where you don't know the context of, or your partner's relationship with, that person."
The difference between the jealousy playing out on Facebook versus in offline social circles is the easy access to information, she added.
"You're exposed to more information," Muise told LiveScience. "And you can also monitor your partner's activities very easily and without being detected, because they don't know how many times a day you're looking on their Facebook page unless you communicate that with them."
The researchers say the study results are not meant to bash social networking sites. "It's not necessarily about blaming the medium of Facebook or saying that Facebook is negative," Muise said. Rather, she added, the study just shows one of the outcomes of this social platform.
"For this generation, Facebook has become a very big thing," Muise said. "In some ways it's changing the way we're communicating and interacting in our relationships."
One limitation of the study was that the sample was predominantly female. Preliminary results from follow-up research by Muise and her colleagues using a balanced sample shows a gender difference. While both guys and gals reported jealousy related to Facebook use, women were more likely to monitor their partner's activities more closely as a result. Guys, on the other hand, said they just avoided looking at their partner's profile page.