May 26, 2019 | 78° F

Going Instagram official: how social media determines our relationships

Photo by Nick Zambrotta |

Four friends were sprawled out in a messy living room on a Thursday night. The newest Netflix original rom-com played in the background, but the volume was low and no one was paying attention. Instead, everyone was engaged in an in-depth conversation about their love lives. 

One girl briefly mentioned that she was interested in a boy from her calculus class, but she wasn't sure whether he was in a relationship.

"What's his name? I'll investigate," her friend replied. She had already opened Instagram on her phone, ready to look up his handle. If he was in a relationship, he had to post pictures with his significant other, right?

In a world where we share so many of our experiences on social media, publicizing romantic relationships on Instagram is not just conventional, but almost expected. A recent study by the Pew Research Center cites that 37 percent of teens post on social media about their significant others, and 63 percent of teens engage with their followers' posts about their relationships. 

This practice of announcing relationships via social media is not new. Social media users routinely listed their relationship statuses on Facebook, and even on MySpace in the past. Millennials and Generation Z users migrated away from these "dated" forms of social media, but they still adopt many of the same behaviors when defining their relationships on newer platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. 

Because Instagram does not feature relationship statuses as a part of profiles, users were initially given a bit more freedom in expressing their relationship status than choosing between whether they were in a relationship from a predetermined list. This freedom was short-lived, yet, as users quickly created unwritten rules concerning romantic relationships on this platform as well.

For many couples, the first of those rules is the decision to go Instagram official. Becoming Instagram official with your significant other involves posting a picture with them for the first time, and adding a caption that suggests that the two of you are more than friends.

Katie Harrison, a Rutgers Business School junior, went Instagram official with her boyfriend one week after they decided to start a relationship. The photo was taken after three of her close friends met her boyfriend for the first time — she posted a group picture of herself, her partner and her friends on Instagram later that day. Though the photo was not exclusively of her and her boyfriend, Harrison said that she believed it was an important reflection of their relationship at the time.

"I was so happy to post that picture because it showed how he fit right in with every aspect of my life," Harrison said. "You can’t really tell in the picture that it was a big moment, but it meant a lot to me."

Defining the relationship doesn't stop after the initial Instagram post. Many couples still put a lot of thought into how they present their relationships on social media years after they began dating. 

Ananya Nethikunta, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said that she believes that continuing to post about a significant other throughout a relationship can have a positive impact on that relationship as a whole.

"When I post on social media about my relationship, I'm usually thinking, 'My significant other and I look really nice. I want to post about it so everyone can appreciate how nice we look,'" Nethi said. "People like to feel good about themselves and about the people they're (in a relationship) with. As long as both people in the relationship understand that it's just for fun, social media is a positive thing."

Navigating social media for dating purposes can involve more than posting pictures and thinking of witty captions. Dozens of articles on platforms like Hello GigglesGlamour and even The New York Times detail the rules of Instagram dating. Every article's take on the issue is different, and the advice coming in from one source often contradicts another.

For instance, Julia Pugachevsky, an editor, wrote in her Cosmopolitan article that a user should not leave up photos of an ex-partner on Instagram after a breakup. On the other hand, in her Vogue article, Patricia Garcia states that numerous editors believed deleting pictures of an ex on social media was harsh and unnecessary. So what is the truth?

Social science experts state that the answer depends directly on the individuals in that relationship. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, users' relationship visibility (or the amount of information they disclose about their romantic relationships) depends on their individual attachment styles and how they want to be perceived by others.

The study states that avoidant individuals that do not want to be defined by their love lives are less likely to publicize their relationships on social media by posting pictures, or liking and commenting on their partner's posts. On the other hand, anxious individuals who wish to be accepted by others are more likely to make frequent posts about their relationships, and engage with their partner's posts. In the end, the way people use social media to define romantic relationships is all about their impression management, or how they want their love lives to be projected to the outside world. 

Either way, it’s evident that Instagram has a growing influence on how we define our relationships.

Gopa Praturi

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