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What Hurts Your Facebook Friends?

What Hurts Your Facebook Friends?With Facebook and other social networking websites such an integral part of many people’s lives, you have to wonder — what kinds of things do people do that hurt their social networking “friends?”

It’s a brave new world online, where a misstep on a social networking website like Facebook can result in hurt feelings between real friends.

A researcher was interested in figuring out (Tokunaga, 2011) which of our online behaviors on social networking websites were more likely to lead to the greatest hurt feelings amongst our online “friends.” He found three specific things a person can do that can lead to hurt feelings on sites such as Facebook and Myspace.

Here’s what he found out.

The researcher’s sample consisted of 197 undergraduate students, so all of the usual caveats apply to the generalizability of these results. The method was a simple retrospective, open-ended question survey of the subject’s experiences with social networking websites:

Students in the sample were asked to recall the specific episode in which they experienced interpersonal strain while using [social networking websites]. To identify the circumstances of the event, participants were instructed to describe: (a) the background in which the scenario occurred, and (b) what was said or done that led to the strain. Interpersonal strain was defined as any event that weakened a relationship, which is represented by the development of relational distrust, worry, dislike, problems, and/or damage.

After analysis, three consistent themes emerged about what caused the most strain in interpersonal relationships.

1. Denied or ignored friend requests.

This is probably not all that unexpected, since one of the worst things we can do to another human being is to reject them. As the researcher noted:

In most of the cases, users tried to rationalize the declined or ignored request. In this scenario, the user thought the rejection may be a way to maintain different social spheres. He was able to minimize the threat by underscoring their relatively weak connection through acknowledging their intermittent offline contact. Although this respondent does not discuss the influence the event had on his emotions, others recalled their ordeal with the negative event and negative feelings vividly:

I felt anxious and began to regret [requesting] them in fear or embarrassment of rejection. I think the reason for the wait was because that person was busy and didn’t have time to log on to their account. (21, Female)

The excerpt from the female participant is representative of other responses in this negative event type.

Who wants to feel that sting of rejection? Yet, online, we often try and segregate our lives in such a way that means we have to reject certain acquaintances in order to keep certain boundaries. This may be difficult for some people to understand at first, until the rejection is explained through a different modality (e.g., in person or through email).

2. Deleting messages or identification tags.

Just about as bad as being rejected as a “friend” to someone we know in a social network, having our comments to their wall or profile deleted can also be hurtful. When a person posts a comment to a photo or somebody’s wall, or tags someone in a photo, they are putting their personal opinions or judgments out there for all to see. When one of our “friends” comes along and removes it without notice or warning, it makes us feel like our comment wasn’t worthy or good enough for them.

The researcher describes the typical process a person goes through in discovering their comment on a friend’s wall has been deleted:

First, the person authors a message on a contact’s public message board that is available to the entire network. Second, after returning to the contact’s profile for any number of reasons, individuals notice their message has been deleted by the profile owner. Finally, there is a level of confusion about the deletion, which initiates an evaluative process assessing plausible explanations for the message or identification tag removal.

But most of the time when a comment or tag is removed, it’s done for a very good reason:

There are two prevailing reasons individuals offered after being confronted for removing identification tags. As illustrated in this example, people did not want to be tethered to unflattering pictures. Individuals mentioned they removed tags when the quality of the picture was bad or their physical appearance in the picture was undesirable. Others removed identification tags from photographs depicting socially irresponsible behaviors (e.g., underage drinking).

Feeling like something may be misunderstood by a boss or coworkers seems to be a common reason people remove comments or tags from their profile.

3. Top Friends ranking disparities.

A “Top Friends” list allows a person to rank order their friends, in order of importance. It mirrors the old speed dial list that was once a common feature of telephones — the higher up on a person’s telephone’s speed dial list you were, the more valued you were by that person.

Facebook doesn’t have a built-in “Top Friends” list like Myspace does (although you can find one not developed by Facebook amongst the apps). Only 600,000 users use such an application on Facebook (out of 500 million), so this is not a significant concern on this social networking.

But on Myspace and other social networks, such lists are often shown on a user’s profile, leading to a lot of mixed and hurt feelings. Who wants to know they rank only #5 (or worse!) on someone else’s “Top Friends” list? Not too many people.

These kinds of lists are likely to simply mirror the movement of real-life relationships — except they do so in a very direct manifestation. Such rankings prior to these lists were closely held secrets of our internal worlds. Now it is just one more piece of fodder in a never-ending popularity contest (especially amongst teens and young adults).

* * *

I think Tokunaga nails part of the problem on the head when he notes that some of our interpersonal strain and confusion when interacting with social networks such as Facebook come from the misappropriation of the word “friend:”

The confusion surrounding the definition of friends on SNSs complicates matters further in the friend negotiation and ranking processes. Because the equivocal term “friend” is used on SNSs, there are assumptions carried with the label, which may escape some users.

Individuals diverge in how they interpret the meaning of friends on SNSs; some use it to mean mere contacts, others only use friends to refer to people they have met offline, and there are those who apply the term to only close friends. The way in which people construe the notion of friends on SNSs determines their actions in friend negotiations and rankings.

Interpersonal strain may result when two people use and act on discrepant meanings of friends. For example, if Person A thinks all people should be accepted as friends on SNSs, while Person B thinks that friends should only apply to closest friends, interpersonal strain is expected when Person B declines a friend request from Person A because he or she is not considered a close offline friend.

This should come as no surprise. If I think of “friend” as any acquaintance — any person I may or may not even know in real life — on Facebook, while Joe Smith used Facebook only for his actual friends, we’re going to have some problems when it comes to our one on one interactions.

These are considerations technologists like Mark Zuckerberg apparently never gave much thought to, since it was simpler to just abuse the already well-understood word “friend” in the social network he spawned. Such abuse, however, has real-world consequences that we’re only now beginning to document and understand.

So if I delete one of your comments or unfriend you, just know it was probably for a good reason.


Tokunaga, R.S. (2011). Friend Me or You’ll Strain Us: Understanding Negative Events That Occur over Social Networking Sites. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0140.

?Have you ever had a comment deleted? Became un-friended on Facebook? How did that make you feel? Did you talk to the person about it afterward?

What Hurts Your Facebook Friends?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). What Hurts Your Facebook Friends?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Mar 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.