What's Really Going On When You're Unfriended On Facebook

By Dr. Jennifer Bevan

This was originally published on April 14, 2015.

Social networking has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. For example, researchers find time and again that interactive networking sites are helpful in maintaining relationships with our close friends and family as well as with our acquaintances. But, these sites have also changed how we end our relationships. The best example of this is the ability to “unfriend” someone on Facebook.

With the click of a button, you are able to terminate your Facebook relationship. However, when a friend decides to cut you off, you receive no notification that you have been unfriended. In fact, you’re likely to only notice the change in friendship status when your total number of Facebook friends goes down or if you search for the person who unfriended you and notice they are no longer listed as one of your friends.

Thus, with the unique nature of Facebook unfriending in mind, two of my students and I sought to determine how Facebook users respond to being unfriended. We considered Facebook unfriending as a form of relationship termination that would result in the unfriended individual experiencing general negative emotion and rumination such as unwanted, intrusive thoughts about the unfriending. We also predicted that unfriended individuals would experience different levels of these negative emotions and thoughts in relation to their general Facebook usage and the unfriended relationship in particular (how close the friends were and who originally friended whom). To test these predictions, we conducted an online survey of 547 adult Facebook users who had been unfriended. That survey revealed the following:

-Whether respondents were "intense" Facebook users (the extent to which they were actively involved in interacting on Facebook).

-Whether they knew exactly which of their Facebook friends unfriended them.
-Whether the participant who was unfriended had originated the friend request.
In addition, we asked the unfriended individuals to tell us why they thought they might have been unfriended, by selecting from a list of possible reasons. Most participants indicated that they were likely unfriended in response to an offline event that had occurred, such as a breakup or a conflict. Furthermore, though the fewest participants felt that they were unfriended for Facebook-related reasons, such as posting polarizing or crude comments, those who did experienced the greatest negative emotions and rumination. Unfriended individuals also ruminated more when they relied heavily on Facebook to connect with their social contacts, or when the person who unfriended them was a close friend or immediate family member.

This was the first study to consider the thoughts and feelings of individuals who are unfriended on Facebook, and we learned that the experience of being unfriended can differ according to a number of factors. Regardless, how you interact offline has more of an impact on your online relationship than the other way around.

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