It happens to the best of us. We check in on a quasi-friend, acquaintance, high school rival, ex-girlfriend, maybe-future boyfriend, current co-worker, former co-worker, possible employee, whoever, and as we are flipping through their Instagram pictures, our finger slips and we hit “like.”
There is no good explanation for why we were looking at their pictures from September 2012, but it happened. So we panic. In my most recent case, I unliked the picture immediately, but still feared that I might have been caught.
I spoke with four experts about how social media stalking affects our mental health and how to approach the situation if you worry your behavior was noticed. First things first: It’s not that stalkery, actually.
It’s normal and everyone — everyone — does it
“There’s an element to [social media stalking] that is very human nature,” said Devan Rosen, professor of emerging media at Ithaca College and the editor of “The Social Media Debate: Unpacking the Social, Psychological, and Cultural Effects of Social Media.” Humans have an innate curiosity about what people are up to, said Rosen, and “we seek uncertainty reduction.”
In the past, relationships were cultivated in person, via phone or by mail. Communication was directed at a single person or small group. Most acquaintances fell out of your life, while a true relationship took work.
But today, Rosen said, social media allows us to “accrue these large caches of quote-unquote friends.” We communicate through what Rosen refers to as “non-directed self-disclosure,” as individuals post thoughts and pictures, but not aimed at any specific person. “It’s less contextual,” he said. “And it sits there persistently.”
This voluntarily allows anyone connected to you to reach into your history, said Rosen, which is very different from actual stalking, which he defined as “observing someone’s behaviors or communication without them knowing, in a nefarious way.” Real stalking doesn’t involve permission, but with social media, Rosen asked, “how can you be violating somebody’s privacy while you’re looking at something they shared publicly and you’re connected as friends?”
People social media stalk for various reasons, said Ebony Butler, a psychologist and the creator of My Therapy Cards. “People stalk to check up on people who they may not otherwise check up on in real life,” she said. They are searching for a feeling of nostalgia, or maybe “for comparison, comparing your life with somebody else’s life and what they’re doing versus what I’m doing.”
“It’s important to remember there’s probably a good reason some people you knew are no longer in your life.”
But if you find yourself getting frustrated and upset, Paula Durlofsky, a psychologist and the author of “Logged In and Stressed Out: How Social Media is Affecting Your Mental Health and What You Can Do About It,” said you should ask yourself, “Why am I looking at somebody’s profile that I haven’t seen for a while or from a relationship that went bad? Why now?”
You will realize that your behavior is filling some need that isn’t being filled in your real life, some unresolved conflict or emotion, she said. The work that needs to be done isn’t between you and the person you are stalking, but within yourself.
Social media stalking can be beneficial, said Britt Frank, a psychotherapist and the author of “The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward,” because it allows you to explore people’s pages and recognize what you have in common. If you have social anxiety, that information can allow you to feel more comfortable when you interact with people in person.
Social media stalking can also help people socially and professionally because of what Michael Stefanone, a professor of communications at the University of Buffalo and an author featured in “The Social Media Debate,” calls “network awareness.” The better you are connected to people through social media, the more you will know where your social capital lies and be able to tap into its resources.
Social media stalking becomes a problem when you find yourself “down the rabbit hole and clicking things,” Frank said, with an “increased need for more and more and continued use despite negative consequences.” She recommends taking inventory of how much time you are spending doing it, and asking yourself, “Are the four hours you spent stalking your ex-ex-ex’s new girlfriend hours that you could be using for other things that would better your life?”
Take note of how you feel after digging around, advised Butler. “Do you feel like, ‘OK, all of my informational needs have now been satisfied and now I am ready to move on with my life?’ It’s a negative if you’re so obsessed with someone else’s life that it comes at the expense of curating and crafting and building your own.”
Asking questions can lead to learning important information about yourself, said Frank. “What people are you looking at? What do they all have in common?” Envy can teach you about your interests and wants, she said. “If you’re constantly looking at ex-classmates of yours who live in the country, great. Let’s examine if there’s a part of you that maybe wants to live in the country.”
It’s important to remember there’s probably a good reason some people you knew are no longer in your life, said Durlofsky. Recognize that you are yearning for connection, and “the work is to maintain the drive to connect with a healthier individual” than the one you’re no longer close to but checking out on social media.
It triggers an anxiety that you really don’t need to feel
If not for social media stalking, social media traffic would plummet, said Rosen. “Here we have these massive profit-based corporations whose entire business model is based on getting you to share as much as you can so they better know how to sell you to advertisers.” They monitor who and what you are looking at. “We’re essentially tools,” said Rosen.
And social media companies don’t care about the damage they are doing to people’s mental health. “If your motive is only profit, the social outcomes of your designs and decisions don’t matter,” said Rosen. “People tend to post and share the more positive and fun things about their life. … And it’s not like you have your page right next to it, looking at your own great stuff that you did.”
Observing someone in real life would portray a more honest view of them, because you would see the other person falling on their face, messing up at work, twiddling their fingers.
One of the main aspects of social media stalking is the shame attached to it. “People are easily embarrassed,” said Butler. They think that if they’re caught, others will judge them, especially “if we’re already judging and criticizing ourselves.”
But Butler says liking a status is not that major, even though “our anxiety is always going to blow things up.” In reality, a like often only means you want to support someone: “I may not even like what you have on, but I like you as a person.”
The solution to pushing back against social media stalking anxiety is to “release ourselves from our own judgments and criticism of what we think liking a post means,” said Butler. “It was just a like, whether they noticed it or not. In the grand scheme of your life, how much does it really matter?”
A like appears on someone’s notifications nearly instantly. You have the option to quickly unlike it, and it will disappear just as fast. The chance of you actually getting caught is minuscule. The person you were social media stalking would need to have been using social media at that exact moment. An issue could arise if they have push notifications on, in which case they would receive a message informing them of your like. But really, who the heck allows push notifications for social media anymore? The apps would harass you all day. There are more extreme ways to hide after a slip, such as blocking people and disabling your account, but unliking the picture probably did the job just fine.
If you’re worried you were caught and your mind is spiraling...
If you accidentally like a status and feel the need to talk to the other person about it, Butler said to speak directly to the person and use “I” statements. She gave the example of telling them, “I have a lot of anxiety and my anxiety leads me to want to know every single thing there is to know about a person. So when that anxiety is high, I tend to look at people’s pages, even from years back, to satisfy that anxiety.”
“Worst case scenario, they know that you creeped on them. ... They’ve done it, too.”
You can use it as an opportunity to grow closer with the person by just admitting that you are interested in seeing what they are up to and learning more about them. “Having that openness about it can decrease the amount of shame and guilt that comes with being caught,” said Butler.
If you find social media is causing you stress, “stepping away from screens is an act of self-care. It’s an act of self-love,” said Durlofsky. When you feel the urge to use, she said to “take a moment and write down why and what are you feeling and what could possibly be triggering that feeling.”
At the same time, take inventory of activities other than social media that bring you joy, Durlofsky said, so “you have another destination to go to that is not social media, like reading a book or working out or writing, drawing, playing with your child, your cat. Meditating and breathing.”
Butler recommends using breathing exercises if your mind is spiraling. “When you slow your breath down, you slow your thoughts down.” You should also fact-check your thoughts: Ask yourself what the likelihood is anyone saw your like. Does you liking a person’s photo really mean anything?
“Worst-case scenario,” said Frank, “they know that you creeped on them. Guess what, we’ve all done it. Guaranteed. They’ve done it, too.” Remember, “you can’t control other people’s perceptions. So if you accidentally like something and they know about it, if they’re not in your life, it actually doesn’t matter.”
If you really find yourself stuck, Frank recommends you find a good therapist to process it with.
Remember that calling it ‘stalking’ is silly, anyway
Stalking is such a negative word. There are tons of alternative terms, some still not great but better than stalking. There’s snooping. Peeking. Butler remembers it being referred to as lurking “back in the Twitter days.” Frank, a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” prefers the term “social media viewing” because “it’s a neutral thing.”
One way to push back against the shame of social media stalking is to outwardly admit you do it, said Butler. Hit that like button on pictures and statuses widely. Spread that support to friends and acquaintances. To family members and co-workers, past and present.
The last time I accidentally hit a like, it was on my ex-girlfriend’s post. We’d dated 20 years ago and are still close friends. The reason I freaked was because that friendship means so much to me. I had forgotten her birthday and thought it was coming soon, so I scrolled through her Instagram timeline, looking for clues to when it fell. My finger slipped, and I hearted a picture from years back. In panic, I unliked it instantly, knowing the chances of her seeing it were small. But I felt that flush of shame, so I immediately told my wife, then I told my ex-girlfriend what happened the next time I saw her in person.
Neither judged me. Neither cared. They just chuckled at me.