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Social Penetration Theory: Self-disclosure and Relational Development Through Computer Mediated Communication

1589 words (6 pages) Essay in Psychology

18/05/20 Psychology Reference this

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Social Penetration Theory: Self-disclosure and Relational Development Through Computer Mediated Communication



Technology today has changed the way people communicate with one another, creating an abundance of new methods to self-disclose information to people in a faster and less stressful way. A large part of studying the Social Penetration Theory is trying to understand how much or what kind of impact self-disclosure and the Social Penetration Theory have on relationships. It has been discussed that the more information you can self-disclose in a relationship and have that self-disclosure be reciprocated will improve the closeness in the relationship.

What is more commonly being researched now and days is how technology and Computer Mediated Communication play a role in relational development. However, with the use of Computer Mediated Communication, the quality of self-disclosure that is being communicated may not be received as efficiently as it would in a face-to-face interaction. The Social Penetration Theory is a very useful and important tool in being able to predict and explain how self-disclosure produces relational development and how it can also be used to maintain relationships. Whether it is maintaining friendships, family relationships or even romantic relationships.

This paper will discuss how the Social Penetration Theory and Computer Mediated Communication are used in relational development and relational maintenance.  Topics that will be covered throughout this paper are self-disclosure through Computer Mediated Communication; how Computer Mediated Communication is used in relational development and how Computer Mediated Communication is used to maintain relationships.



Theoretical Discussion:

Social Penetration Theory assumes that self-disclosure over time helps develop relationships. Social Penetration theory attempts to predict and explain how the use of self-disclosure directly impacts relational development. Self –disclosure is defined as “The voluntary sharing of personal history, preferences, attitudes, feelings, values, secrets, etc., with another person; transparency” (Griffin, 2012, pg. 114). Theorists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, use “The Onion Metaphor” to further explain that people are more complex than what might originally meet the eye (Griffin, Ledbetter, & Sparks, 2019).

Like an onion, the qualities and attributes of a person that are clearly visible for society to see, are the outer layers of the onion (Griffin et al., 2019). With the process of social penetration, relationships are developed when the amount of self-disclosure is high. The more people can self-disclose in a relationship creates a better opportunity for the relationship to become more intimate.  Each time a person discloses more about his or herself in a relationship is another layer of the Onion being peeled back. As more layers are exposed, just like an onion you will eventually find the core. Someone’s inner core involves one’s values, insecurities, self-image, and deeply felt emotions (Griffin et al., 2019).

However, investing in self-disclosure to advance a relationship can be scary. When people disclose personal information about themselves, it is natural to assume that the other person in the relationship will do the same. This is known as the “Law of reciprocity”, meaning that one’s transparency with others should be lead to an equal return, creating closeness in the relationship (Griffin et al., 2019).  Technology, in today’s world, is creating a more comfortable space for self-disclosure to happen. Dating sites, text messaging, Facebook and Instagram are some examples of how people today are choosing to communicate. This form of communication is being seen between friends, family members and even romantic couples. Technology is not only being used to develop relationships but also maintaining relationships.

Synthesis of Scholarship: Self disclosure

A large part of the Social Penetration Theory is looking to understand how self-disclosure works in regards to relational development. Technology in today’s world is allowing people to take an impersonal approach to self-disclosing information instead of face-to-face communication. Removing cues that you would normally gain from face-to-face interaction could make it more complicated to convey emotion, but technology seems to be creating what some might describe as a more comfortable environment to self-disclose and open up to others. This enables people to use hyper personal communication, which occurs when individuals find it easier to self-disclose through technology rather than in face-to-face interaction. “Those who find their voices through computer-mediated communication (CMC) engage in hyper personal communication” (Walther, 1996, p. 4).

Ayash, Sidelinger and Tibbles state that “Despite the fact that CMC has generally been classified as a relational maintenance behavior. CMC has offered an alternate channel of communication for interactants. Whether by e-mail or IM, computer mediation allows relational development to occur in similar fashion to face-to-face communication”. There is also a correlation between Self-disclosure and relationship satisfaction, in that the more self-disclosure there is in a relationship will lead to a higher level of commitment and relationship satisfaction (Hendricks & Sprecher, 2004). The amount of information that someone is willing to self-disclose in a relationship is influenced by the amount of self-disclosure his or her partner can reciprocate (Hendricks & Sprecher, 2004). This means Self-disclosure is imperative to ensure relational development and relational growth.

Many studies suggest that the development and maintenance of interpersonal relationships is one of the main reasons for Internet use (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). Through numerous studies researchers are also finding out that relationships that are developed through Computer Mediated Communication are similar to relationships developed through face-to-face interactions. Estrada, Fleuriet and Houser (2012 P.3) stated, “relationships developed and maintained through Computer Mediated Communication can be as deep as those fostered in a solely Face-to-Face context”. Text messaging has become a significant form of communication amongst couples, family members, co-workers, etc. Also noted by Estrada, Fleuriet and Houser (2012), even though research supports the notion that Computer Mediated Communication is used to introduce and develop new relationships, it is important to understand how individuals use different forms of mediated communication to improve them and maintain them.

In today’s world, “People are continuously using a variety of behaviors to effectively maintain their relationships” (Ayash, G., Godorhazy, A., Sidelinger, R. J.  & Tibbles, D. 2008 P. 342). Computer Mediated Communication is even more imperative for relational maintenance in long distance relationships. Whether two people live far apart or one person in the relationship travels a lot, people have to find and easy way to communicate. Email and text messaging have proven to be a leader in forms of Computer Mediated Communication used in relational maintenance.               “The rapid advancement of technology has changed the way the world operates. Technology now allows people the opportunity to communicate from opposite ends of the globe” (Ayash, Sidelinger and Tibbles p. 3). Per Hendricks and Spreecher “Relationship maintenance is the process that occurs after a relationship begins and until a relationship ends, and it can be described as all the behaviors that keep relational partners satisfied and that contribute to relationship continuation” (Hendricks & Sprecher, 2004 p. 860).


 Self-disclosure is imperative in regards to relational development and relational growth. Developing a relationship through self-disclosure can be tough because it takes courage and trust to put your self out there and open up. Having to self-disclose through Computer Mediated Communication does not make the process any easier. It might actually make it more difficult in the beginning because it is removing the normal cues one is used to getting through face-to-face interactions. However, now and days this form of communication is becoming ever more popular and is becoming the norm for the new generation. The articles provide useful information in comparing the differences between self-disclosing in face-to-face and Computer Mediated Communication. However, more research needs to be done on the similarities between the two and the benefits that can come from self-disclosure through Computer Mediated Communication. One example of a benefit would be the relational development that can evolve through Computer Mediated Communication.  As technology in the world today continues to develop, it is important to learn how to use these new forms of communication in order to maximize relational development.


  • Bargh, J. A., & McKenna, K. Y. A. (2004). The Internet and social life. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 573–590.
  • Ayash, G., Godorhazy, A., Sidelinger, R. J.  & Tibbles, D. (2008). Couples Go Online: Relational      Maintenance Behaviors and Relational Characteristics Use in Dating Relationships. Human Communication, 11(3), 341–355.
  • Estrada, D., Fleuriet, C., & Houser, M. (2012). The Cyber Factor: An Analysis of Relational Maintenance Through the Use of Computer-Mediated Communication. Communication Research Reports, 29(1), 34–43.
  • Ramirez, A., & Broneck, K. (2009). “IM me”: Instant messaging as relational maintenance and everyday communication. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 26(2/3), 291–314.
  • Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyper personal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3.
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