Is cyberstalking normal?

Words: Amal Awad. Find out about Facebook's new Graph Search here.

Jezebel’s Katie JM Baker recently penned a striking piece on cyberstalking. In the entry, she confessed to cyberstalking not only her ex, but her ex’s new girlfriend. A (universal) situation that grew comical when she discovered, much later, that the ex’s girlfriend was stalking her right back.

“My obsession with Googling her and monitoring her various social media feeds felt almost compulsive; I didn't know why I was doing it anymore, or what I was getting out of the experience exactly, only that I didn't want to stop.”

Indeed, why does anyone do it? I’ve been involved in countless conversations with friends and even strangers who admit to using the internet to find out what their ex/ love interest/ estranged friend who won’t answer our phone calls is up to. And it’s not as much about keeping tabs on them as it is about trying to feel better about how something has ended.

We Google to find out random, pointless information (there’s a reason it’s dubbed the citizen’s spy agency), are able to trail tweets and – Smartphone-permitting – a dazzling instagram feed. If you’re particularly fastidious, there’s LinkedIn – but that won’t give you much beyond a promotion or job change – and then, of course, there’s the master crystal of social media, Facebook, in all of its questionable-privacy glory.

You might be recently dumped or be the one who put an end to the relationship, and you miss him/her. It extends to friendships, leading to hurt and awkwardness of humdinger proportions when you share dozens of mutual friends online. If it’s fresh, it is particularly painful. There’s nothing that rips open the wound like visiting a profile you no longer have access to.

Hands up anyone who’s never heard the words: “I know I shouldn’t have, but I checked his profile and…” Cue the tears, the nervous lip-biting, and the grief. It’s pressing the bruise and it gets you absolutely nowhere but further down that hole of despair.

Perhaps it’s really just a case of human nature, but social media certainly facilitates obsessive tendencies – and it can make it that much harder to get over a situation that should have long been put to bed.

Baker points to research that argues it’s completely normal to stalk an ex, and that 88 per cent of spurned lovers track their past amours on Facebook (surely the remaining 12 per cent are lying) while 31 per cent of respondents carefully curate their profile pictures on what they assume will incite their ex’s jealousy.

If driving you to the edge of your sanity via stalking tendencies isn’t enough, another report suggests it could actually be making you fat, linking binge-eating to prolonged visits of the social media site. Great news.

But, the greatest concern is the impact trawling profiles for hours may have on your overall wellbeing. As one British study notes, Facebook has disrupted the post-breaking recovery process.

The study, 'Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth', looked at the impact of continued Facebook contact with an ex, and how merely “watching” (not interacting with) them online can destroy you for far longer than necessary.

Unsurprisingly, the findings concluded that virtual behaviour simply mirrored real-life behaviour.

“Just as real life contact with ex-partners may inhibit growth, healing, and well-being, so may virtual contact,” says Brenda Wiederhold, editor-in-chief of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking at the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego.

Common as it all may be, is it really “normal”? One of Baker’s commenters argued that, no, it really is not:

“I don't usually trot this cliché out, but 'you' (people that do this) need to get a life, and I say that only because it's really weird to try and obsess over someone else's life.”

Interestingly, I’d argue that many people who do engage in this sort of behaviour do have a life, and probably a fairly well-rounded one. Writer Sarah Berry points to research differentiating between “real” stalking and “cyberstalking”.

Dr Troy McEwan of Monash University and Melbourne's Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science elucidates the obvious differences between virtual and actual tracking: “Checking someone’s Facebook persistently... is arguably not stalking. It’s not necessarily a healthy behaviour, but it’s probably not stalking unless you are also doing other things that would cause the victim concern if they knew you were doing it.”

Still, it should be noted that you don’t have to be pining over someone else’s life to be “stalking” them. You just haven’t completely let go, or the hurt of a lost opportunity remains. I’d like to say it comes down to human nature, because we’re nothing if not masochistic in how we go about mind-games, particularly in the area of relationships. But, really, another part of me just wants to dump the blame wholeheartedly on social media, in the same way an indulgent parent further ruins a tantrum-pulling child in the supermarket. Just like spoilt children, what we’re doing is not about the person we’re obsessing over – it’s all about us.

It’s a situation that was placed into stark reality for me recently when my ability to search someone out from my past led me to discover just how far he’d moved on. It’s not that he factors into my daily existence. He wasn’t even a proper “relationship”. And no, I’m not attached emotionally to him anymore (which is a relief given we haven’t seen each other, properly, in ages).

Curiously, I avoid things that will thrust me into his path. The few times I have, completely by chance, run into him, they were in the most unlikely of places, at the most unexpected of times. But when it comes to social media, all it takes is a bad week(end), a shoddy mood and a lack of carbs in your diet to – sans the influence of alcohol – Google or “Facebook” someone you no longer have any kind of attachment to.

So why do we do it? Why do we go to pains to avoid real-life encounters, yet search out people online, in the vain hope it’ll offer some closure or sense of completion?

I’d venture to say that, despite how crappy it leaves you feeling, it feels safer. And it is an easier way of finding out that your ex-lover/friend/interest is living a completely different life. More power to them. And may it be a reminder to stay firmly rooted in your own. On the ‘lighter’ side of cyberstalking an ex, it might simply be a temporary measure until you feel like yourself again, until the thought of whatever your ex is doing means nothing at all.

Amal Awad is a writer and author of Courting Samira.

Lead image via Shutterstock.

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