Ask anyone. If you have an ex-partner, you probably have checked out their social media accounts at least once, right? Social media “stalking” is often a relatively harmless rite of passage into singlehood. Some people keep the peeping to a minimum, while others check up on their exes a bit more often.
Elena checks in on her ex-partner’s social media whenever she’s feeling “extremely single,” or even just bored. “It can be fun, but there’s definitely a morbid curiosity aspect to it — almost like every time you go to check their socials, it’s a gamble to see if they’ve moved on or not, or whether or not you’re still on their radar,” she said. (She and others are being referenced by first names or pseudonyms to protect their or their ex-partner’s privacy.)
Elena described her relationship with her ex as great, with no signs of toxicity, but they did have a hard time letting each other go. “Seemed like there was always a door left slightly open, so I guess that fueled some of the ‘stalking,’” she explained. She has checked up on her ex on “basically any platform that I know he’s active on,” including Instagram, Venmo, Spotify and LinkedIn.
She said Venmo and Spotify usually reveal the most information.
“I like to check up on Venmo because it can tell you who they’ve been hanging out with and give you a little insight on what they’ve been up to. If there’s a transaction between him and some girl with the memo ‘drinks 🍹’ or something of that nature, it’s a fun little game to go down the ‘stalking’ rabbit hole and see what his relationship might be to said girl,” Elena said. “One time I found out an ex was getting a new tattoo through Venmo, so sometimes it’s just funny little updates like that.”
On Spotify, her ex’s playlists and current favorite songs say a lot about how he’s feeling, she said. “I know damn well that the songs my ex puts on playlists are songs he’s relating to at the moment, and paired with a cryptic playlist title, that’s full-fledged confirmation that he’s thinking of me, too,” Elena said.
A lot of people continue to look at their ex-partners’ social media accounts for a sense of connection, according to therapist and social media expert Lexi Joondeph-Breidbart, who started a post-breakup support group program called the Lonely Hearts Club. Monitoring can also be motivated by anxiety, she said.
“For people who didn’t initiate the breakup, ‘stalking’ can be a form of control. If they didn’t have control over the breakup, ‘stalking’ can give them a sense of control over the information they know via social media,” Joondeph-Breidbart said. “It’s also motivated by anxiety, knowing if their exes have moved on and who they’re following. It’s not really resolving their emotions, but it feels like it is for a bit.”
Seeking connection, plus being able to control their own narrative, is the reason one teenager said they check on their ex-partner on social media. “I miss them a lot and it’s the only way to know a little bit of what’s going on in their life,” said the teen, who we’ll call Blake.
Blake said their ex-partner broke up with them without an explanation. Pulling up their ex’s social media accounts is motivated by seeking why that happened: Do they like someone new? Is the reasoning behind their breakup hidden in cryptic-but-telling messages and posts on their social media accounts?
Just like at the start of a relationship, social media snooping post-breakup is all about collecting tidbits of information about someone. Blake keeps tabs on their ex-partner’s Pinterest profile. “I just look at when they last saved a pin so I can know when they were last active and what they’re interested in at the moment,” they said.
Seeking connection is also a reason people use less common social media platforms to track their exes. Even though it’s still possible to know a lot about someone through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, it’s not likely that people will share there who they’re exchanging money with, as they would on Venmo; their favorite songs, like they would on Spotify; their favorite books, as they might on Goodreads; their random thoughts, like they would on TikTok; their current favorite aesthetic, like they would on Pinterest; or details about their professional achievements, like they might on LinkedIn.
Being able to know all of that information about someone can lead to a habit, which can then lead to an obsession — something that might, of course, be detrimental to a person’s mental health, Joondeph-Breidbart said.
It also fuels “what ifs,” such as “What if they’re still thinking about me?” or “What if they want to get back together?” “People usually try to find signs, interpret things, and give meaning to things when there’s likely no meaning,” she said.
And on the other side of the breakup, your former partner may be looking at your accounts, too.
This can be benign, but still something you’d prefer to avoid. Or it can be a safety issue ― having access to personal information on social media is also how some abusive ex-partners tend to maintain their power over a survivor post-breakup.
How To Keep Your Accounts More Private
Whether you simply prefer your personal information to be less available to others or you hope to thwart an abusive ex, the first step is making your accounts private ― or at least more private.
On Spotify, you can make your playlists private on either your desktop or the app.
If you use Snapchat, you can choose to not allow people to see your location.
On Pinterest, you can make all of your boards and pins private.
For Venmo, you can set privacy setting for each individual payment or change your default setting so that every transaction is automatically hidden from others.
If you use Goodreads, you can set your profile to private. That way, only friends are able to view your account. You also can change your settings so that non-friends can’t message you.
LinkedIn also can be made more private without sacrificing its utility. On settings, you can turn off your profile’s public visibility, and you can also change your settings so other people can’t tell if you’ve viewed their page (for example, if you try to stay abreast of an abusive ex’s whereabouts).
When Social Media ‘Stalking’ Is More Sinister
Even though more casual social media monitoring is relatively common after a breakup, it can be abusive.
“My ex stalked my Venmo at four in the morning, and he liked our payments from over a year before,” said a woman we’ll call Luna. “It honestly scares me; it’s such an invasion of privacy. I had already had issues of him having his friends harass me, and I thought it was finally over, but then that happened and it just took a toll on my mental health. All I want is to be left alone.”
Luna described her ex-partner as a “controlling and manipulative monster.” When they broke up, she blocked him on all of her social media accounts — except Venmo, because it didn’t even cross her mind that he could find information about her, reach out and make her uncomfortable there.
A woman we’ll call Anna experiences the same discomfort when her ex-partner from 10 years ago looks at her social media accounts. “He continually seeks me out on different social media platforms,” she said. “It fills me with dread any time I see his name. I don’t care about this person anymore, so why is he so determined and curious to look me up? I don’t want him to be thinking about me still.”
Anna decided to move to another city when the relationship ended, but still fears seeing her ex anytime they’re in the same place. She feels less control over what he sees, and the information he knows, from his viewing her on social media.
Joondeph-Breidbart said abusive people usually monitor their ex-partners in order to continue the abuse. And in the vast majority of cases of abuse and abusive ex-partners, there’s some component of technology, said Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“In facilitating abuse, social media ranks very high in every research that we’ve done,” Olsen said. “It’s just because it’s so relevant and constant in people’s lives. So many of us are in some sort of, if not many, social media platforms and spaces, so we tend to see the things that are most common use in technology are also the things that are going to be misused.”
Abusers will misuse any kind of social media platform, Olsen said. “We’ve seen the misuse of almost everything. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are really common platforms where abusers target survivors, but again, that’s not surprising because they’re so commonly used,” she said. “We’re hearing all the time about Venmo, Goodreads, things that people wouldn’t necessarily assume could be misused. Abusive individuals will use whatever tools are available to them, they’re going to use platforms and services that are important and relevant to the survivor.”
Haylee said that her ex-partner emotionally abused and manipulated her when they were together, then used Snapchat and Venmo to collect the most information that he could use against her.
“After breaking up, he only had access to some of my social media accounts, as I had already removed him from seeing others,” she said. “But the main ones he was stalking me on were Snapchat and Venmo. My location was available to my friends on Snapchat and there were multiple occasions when he would question who I was with if he saw that I was out somewhere. There was one instance when he had seen I was out, automatically assumed I was on a date, and proceeded to send me a pretty nasty email.”
Olsen said that tactics of abuse often overlap. “Abuse is about power control, and the new tools that abusers use that come in the form of technology don’t change that — it’s still about power control,” Olsen said. “Harassment and monitoring in online spaces and social media isn’t completely separate from physical, financial and sexual abuse. Survivors are balancing this reality all the time.”
Abusers who collect information on social media remove their target’s freedom: Those people can no longer easily share information about their personal lives, interests and professional achievements with their friends and family without their abusers knowing. “This is especially difficult for survivors, because it’s this cultural experience to share your life on social media,” Joondeph-Breidbart said.
More Social Media Steps To Take In An Abusive Situation
Simply quitting social media might keep survivors from networking and getting career opportunities. It can also keep them from making new connections, including new friends and allies who can add to their support system.
“Saying that you should delete your social media is kind of putting the responsibility and the blame on the victim. It can really isolate people and even make them feel unsupported,” said Joondeph-Breidbart.
Olsen agrees. “We can’t treat a survivor like they’re never going to be on the internet,” she said.
Trusting your instincts is the most important piece of advice Olsen gives to survivors of abuse. “[Survivors] know how much the abusive person knows about them. They know the threat that this person imposes on them,” she said. “Blocking that person may escalate their behavior, and they may show up in person, which is a much bigger safety risk.”
Olsen suggests reporting an abuser on the platform instead. Often, if you simply block someone, they’re able to create a fake account and keep collecting information about you. If you report them, “in some platforms, they can kick that person out of the platform, not by account, but by their IP,” she said. That way, the abuser isn’t able to create another social media account to monitor you.
One of the biggest safety risks for survivors nowadays is how platforms set up their security questions. An ex-partner might be able to answer queries like “What was the name of your first pet?” or “What’s the street you grew up in?” That makes it easier for them to hack into social media accounts.
“Set two-factor authentication so the other person can’t take over your account,” said Olsen. This could involve prompting an app to send a code or push notification to your phone to verify the log-in attempt, or even a biometric key like a fingerprint or facial recognition. Two-factor authentication can be set up on Venmo, Pinterest, LinkedIn, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. (Unfortunately, it’s not currently possible to set up two-factor authentication on Goodreads and Spotify.)
Beyond that, she and the Safety Net Project are actively advising social media platforms in ways they can protect survivors of abuse. “The thought process of security needs to be different when we’re trying to protect ourselves from someone who knows us so intimately.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.