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John Bowlby, born in 1907 London to an upper class family, had little parental love. His mother believed (as was common at the time) kindness would spoil children, and his father, a knighted surgeon, left home to fight in the Great War; his primary caregiver, a nursemaid named Minnie, who did love him, was let go when Bowlby was four. At seven, he was sent to boarding school. (“I wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school at age seven,” he later remarked.) After boarding school and a brief stint in the Navy, he was accepted at Cambridge to study medicine, which he abandoned after three years to work with a group of maladjusted children. This led Bowlby to study psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, in south London, now the largest mental health-training center in the United Kingdom.

What Bowlby experienced as a child, and what he learned from maladjusted children, culminated in a theory of attachment that became a cornerstone of developmental psychology. As Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, once said to her students, as she presented material from Bowlby’s then forthcoming 1980 book, Attachment and Loss, “Here is chapter 4 of the Bible.” Bowlby’s theory has impacted childcare policies and childhood clinical therapy practices. Today, as children grow up amidst the ubiquity of the iPhone, researchers are now applying Bowlby’s ideas to our relationships on—and with—social media. Attachment theory, says Lauren Reed, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a useful framework to understand how social media can trigger a “cycle of anxiety” in romantic relationships.

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Bowlby’s “attachment theory” doesn’t stray far from common sense. Grounded in Darwinian evolution, it describes the types of bonds humans form with their primary caregivers and how they shape, for example, peoples’ expectations of how their future relationships will function. Those bonds, according to Bowlby, can be either “secure” or “insecure.” Children with nurturing and dependable caregivers develop a secure attachment style, learning to trust others to be there for them; children with neglectful or malicious caregivers develop an insecure attachment style. (It can be further qualified as either “insecure-anxious” or “insecure-avoidant.”) It has also been shown that the attachment styles we develop in our youth are relatively stable over time. A 2002 meta-analysis of 24 studies, for example, found that “despite the junctures afforded by life, there is an enduring tendency for people to remain relatively close to their original routes.” The way we communicate and act in relationships as adults, in other words, can very often be traced back to the attachments we formed as infants and children.

“Social media presents an opportunity to monitor and look at your partner’s information more than that’s good for you.”

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Understanding how attachments are formed and how they influence our lives as adults can help us better manage our relationships, and understand our partners and ourselves, says Reed. She, along with colleagues at the University of Michigan, recently investigated the relationship between attachment insecurity and electronic intrusion—furtively examining a partner’s phone, checking their location on social networks, and so on—in college students’ dating relationships. Their subjects—230 undergraduate psychology students—were split fairly evenly, 43 percent male and 57 percent female, and nearly half were currently in relationships, with the remainder having been in at least one relationship within the previous year. (Almost all subjects reported exclusively heterosexual relationships.)

The researchers’ survey questions were designed to measure three things: individuals’ romantic attachment style, the degree of electronic intrusion present in their relationships, and their social media usage. They asked subjects whether they “need a lot of reassurance that I am loved by my partner” and whether they monitored “someone’s activities and whereabouts,” controlled “who they talk to and are friends with,” spread “embarrassing and sexual photos with others,” and whether they were also victims of such intrusions. Reed and colleagues also asked them how many hours per week they spent on social media sites.

The results, say Reed and her colleagues, show that “attachment anxiety is an influential psychological factor in engaging in electronic intrusion for both women and men.” After controlling for demographics, social network use, and victimization of electronic intrusion, subjects who reported higher levels of anxious attachment (quick to fall in love, fear rejection)—as opposed to avoidant attachment (slow to fall in love, emotionally detached)—were more likely to report having intruded into their partner’s digital lives. In January, Reed and her colleagues replicated the original study but with 703 high school students, and found largely the same pattern: “Higher levels of attachment anxiety were associated with more frequent perpetration of [electronic intrusion] for both girls and boys.”

Reed says her research highlights the danger of social media for anxiously attached people. It can serve, she says, as “both a trigger for relationship anxiety and a tool for partner surveillance in an attempt to alleviate anxiety”—a kind of catch-22. The action pursued to lessen anxiety instead increases it. Reed sees this pattern in her work with youth in Santa Barbara. “Particularly for these youth that are anxiously attached, any sort of trigger will sort of set them off into a spiral where they ruminate and they seek reassurance,” she tells me.

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The problem, she says, is that social media boundaries aren’t something she sees commonly discussed in relationships. She aims to amend that. She’s currently working directly with students and youth in Santa Barbara to evaluate community-based programs for at-risk youth. “For probably all youth in high school and college, social media,” she says, “presents an opportunity to monitor and look at your partner’s information more than that’s good for you.”

Kevin Blake Ferguson is a magician and a writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on @kevinblakemagic.

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