What becomes of the broken-hearted? In the age of social media, they might turn into internet-addicted zombies, who keep their ex's Facebook pages constantly refreshed for weeks, months, maybe years after the relationship is over; who spend hours sifting through photos from now back to 2003, obsessing over every status update and post from that one coworker. But as a new report by psychologist Tara Marshall, a lecturer at Brunel University in the United Kingdom, reminds us, stalking is as dangerous on Facebook as it is in real life, because it can be habit-forming and emotionally damaging.
"I've found that such Facebook stalking may obstruct the natural process of getting over an ex," Marshall wrote for Quartz. "More specifically, I found that this sort of surveillance was associated with greater distress over the breakup, protracted longing for an ex-partner, more negative feelings towards and sexual desire for the ex and lower personal growth.
Social media is, in some ways, a boon for our relationships, Marshall wrote, keeping us connected and well apprised of our partners' whereabouts. But everything that's good about social media when we're with our partners becomes the worst once we're not. "The ex's profile is there to be seen and pored over, potentially causing untold psychological anguish," she wrote.
What is Facebook stalking? For the uninitiated few, a Facebook post explains with a sample scenario. "So, you've been stalking the cute boy in your class for a few months now," author Low Kay Hwa wrote. "Every day, you log in to your Facebook and view his profile, checking out the new pictures he posts online."
When someone obsessively and anonymously checks another user's profile — maybe clicking back through all of their photos or combing their timeline for hours — he is Facebook stalking that person. It is like regular stalking, but instead of hiding in the bushes outside the object of obsession's house, Facebook offers users the cover of the internet.
"No one knows you have a crush on him," the example continues. "For you believe you have not left any trace." But the Facebook stalker always leaves a trace, because Facebook is always watching.
"Facebook is consistently monitoring what you 'like', 'comment' and 'share,' and from there determines what updates to show you," Hwa wrote. So users who are monitoring their exes are essentially digging their own graves: The more we look at a person's profile, the more of that person we're going to see on our news feeds — which explains why the social media site draws out the break-up blues so deftly, as Marshall described.
Doesn't everyone Facebook stalk sometimes? According to Marshall, one-third of people in relationships keep a close eye on their partners' pages, and roughly the same number continue to do so even after they've broken up, stalking the person on a weekly basis. And she is clear that Facebook isn't guaranteed to turn every user into a jealous monster. Rather, Marshall wrote, Facebook becomes a liability for broken hearts of a particular nature.
Anxious attachment: Facebook is especially attractive to people who "prefer to socially interact online rather than face-to-face, because it satisfies their need to belong without the stress of meeting in person," Marshall wrote for Quartz. Although the data Marshall cited are not conclusive, there appears to be a causal connection between emotional disorders — depression and social anxiety, for example — and a tendency to form addictions to the internet.
And these emotionally vulnerable users are more likely to cling to a relationship's digital remains, Marshall wrote. Her research supports the theory that "people with an anxious attachment style — that is, those with low self-esteem, a fear of rejection and greater jealousy in relationships — are more likely to Facebook stalk current and ex-partners."
In September, Refinery29 took a look at another study — "Romantic Partner Monitoring After Breakups" — that corroborates Marshall's conclusions. Focusing on 431 participants between the ages of 18 and 42, researchers found that people who were prone to anxious attachment during the relationship were more likely to persist in their jealous behavior after a break-up, going to "Facebook to get the extra reassurance they need — especially after the relationship is over," Refinery29 reported. In short, old habits die hard — the same impulses that maybe torpedoed the relationship to begin with will prolong feelings of abject misery after it's over, making it more difficult to close the book on the whole thing.
Why does it matter if we're only hurting ourselves? Citing research on Facebook and post-break-up behaviors, Marshall wrote that Facebook stalkers are "six times more likely to pursue unwanted intimacy with the ex-partner, such as by following or approaching them, sending letters or leaving gifts," which Marshall wrote can be frightening for the party on the receiving end. In addition to making oneself feel worse for a longer period of time, Facebook stalking can — like any form of stalking, really — push one's quarry away, amplifying existing feelings of loneliness and depression. So how do we stop rubbing salt in our wounds?
There's an app for that. In fact, there are many. Facebook is introducing features that will help users manage their access to the ex's profile as soon as the relationship status changes. In a similar vein, an app called KillSwitch will purge your former partner's presence from your Facebook profile. Eternal Sunshine is less extreme, allowing users to simply hide their exes from their Facebook feeds, so that the exes slowly fade from memory. Shryne encourages a more productive method of post-break-up wallowing, sifting through all the user's social media interactions and dumping those involving the ex into the digital version of a shoebox, perfectly preserved but out of sight. Block Your Ex does exactly what its name suggests, banishing the former flame from your browser.
Chin up: The broken-hearted have options and aren't destined to become internet addicts, social media proving both the problem with and the solution to modern love.
Correction: Dec. 28, 2015
A previous version of this article stated a note from Facebook provided an example of Facebook stalking. The example quoted came from a Facebook note written by Low Kay Hwa, an author.