12/18/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

How We Use Social Networking and Why: Part 2

In my previous blog I explored the relationship between individuals' attachment styles and their use of social network sites such as Facebook. This blog will look into a second study that sheds important light on how and why people use social networking. First, however, let's review the basics of attachment styles.

Styles of Attachment

Psychologist Kim Bartholomew and her associates developed a simple instrument to measure four different adult attachment styles (Bartholomew, K. & Horowitz, L.M. (1991) Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.).

To determine what your own style is, respond to each of the following statements from 7 (agree strongly) to 1 (disagree strongly). Here they are, as described by the authors:

Style A It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being alone or having others not accept me.

Style B. I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.

Style C. I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don't value me as much as I value them.

Style D. I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me.

Most people can identify pretty much with one of these styles, though they may not be at the extreme score of 7.

The Roots of Attachment

Psychologists have been interested in the concept of attachment for a long time. It is pretty much a self-evident concept: We form "attachments" to others, beginning in infancy but extending through out lives. Children who come to rely on parents or other significant adults in their lives for basic need such as nurturance, comfort, and safety are though to develop "secure" attachments to those people. That in turns opens the door to their establishing secure attachments later on. In contrast, if parental or other supposed "caregivers" turn out to be unreliable (or even rejecting) that leads to insecure or "anxious" attachments. Anxious attachments in childhood also have lifelong implications.

So what does this all have to do with social networking, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, a lot.

Bartholomew associates the Type A attachment style described above with the kind of secure attachment that comes from nurturing and supporting parent-child relationships. In contrast, she associates both Style B and Style C with insecurity of one sort or another. Finally, Style D is associated with an avoidance of what we commonly think of as intimacy and bonding with others.

Attachment Styles and Social Networking

In the study that is the subject of this second blog on this topic researchers at Columbia University again chose to focus on Facebook, no doubt because it is such a ubiquitous social networking site (Nitzburg. G. & Farber, B. Putting up emotional (Facebook) walls? Attachment status and emerging adults' experiences of social networking sites. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69 (11) 1183-1190, 2013).

These researchers surveyed 127 men and 212 women between the ages of 18 and 29 (mean age of 21.5) who were recruited via posters as well as the volunteer page. All of these volunteers completed the Bartholomew questionnaire to identify their dominant attachment styles. They also provided information on their utilization of the Facebook social networking site as well as their real-life social networks. Here is what they found:

• More time spent on Facebook was associated with larger social networks (no surprise).

• Men and women who identified with either of the two anxious (insecure) attachment styles (B and C) tended to utilize Facebook to build personal, intimate connections with others. At the same time, this group tended to do so as a means of avoiding more personal face-to-face contact. In other words, there is a group of people who appear to substitute "internet intimacy" for in-person intimacy.

• Men and women who identified primarily with the Type A attachment style also utilized Facebook, but not as a substitute for face-to-face connections.

• Finally, Type D individuals utilized Facebook the least in order to build intimate connections with others.

What Does This Mean for You?

My main objective in writing these last two blogs has been to share some insights that might be useful as guides for all those men and women who use social networking. Its popularity notwithstanding, as a clinician I've heard more than a few stories of people who felt burned by their encounters on the Internet. The information that is revealed through studies like the above might be useful as you ask yourself the following questions, as well as when you consider making new "friends":

• What is my dominant attachment style?

• Do I use social networking to build intimate connections to others as a means of avoiding personal face-to-face intimacy?

• Am I the sort of person who really does not seek a lot of interpersonal intimacy?

• Am I fortunate in that my early experiences left me feeling securely attached so that I am able to enjoy connections to others through both face-to-face and internet contact?

Now, here are some parallel questions to consider:

• Might some of my social network "friends" in fact be people who are comfortable being intimate over the Internet, but who seem to shy away from face-to-face contact with me? Have I been hurt or disappointed by that?

• If I am using social networking as a "safer" substitute for face-to-face contact, what I can I do to begin expanding my connections so that I can enjoy that latter kind of intimacy?

• Have I been frustrated by attempting to establish connections to one or more friends who basically are not seeking intimacy? Am I better off accepting that and letting it go?

In my next blog on this subject I will look at FOMO -- Fear of Missing Out -- as it relates to attachment style.

Joseph Nowinski's next book, Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder will be published next spring and is available for pre-order at