Have you ever spent hours upon hours looking up one person’s life history on their Facebook page? Social media allows us to “accrue these large caches of quote-unquote friends.” We communicate through “non-directed self-disclosure,” as individuals post thoughts and pictures, but not aimed at any specific person. “It’s less contextual and it sits there persistently.”
This voluntarily allows anyone connected to you to reach into your history, said Devan Rosen, professor of emerging media at Ithaca College, 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?”
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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?”
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
This content was originally published here.