Dear New Romantics,
You start typing in her username on autopilot. You’ve done it before, so Instagram is prepared: She pops up in your list of recent searches. Ugh. Even her tiny profile picture makes you cringe.
You click and start scrolling — first through her grid posts, and then you tap into her stories: Where has she been? What selfies has she posted (who knew freckles could be so annoying)? More importantly: What dates have they been on? What gifts has he given her? What pathetic couple-y posts are they making?
Your heart is beating faster with every click.
Frustrated by your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s flagrant disregard for how hard of a time you’re having moving on (sure, logically, you know that she isn’t thinking about you at all, but shouldn’t she be?), you screenshot a few posts to send to your bestie group chat: “Can you believe this?”
They gas you up, confirming both that you’re prettier, smarter, more adept at social media than New Girl and that The Ex is trash — so much so that even after you’ve closed the app on your phone, you’re able to stew in your frustration for hours at their urging.
Pumped full of stress hormones, you feel vindicated: New Girl is, indeed, a bitch.
Instagram stalking is the act of using the social media platform to gain information about another person, usually not to their knowledge or with explicit consent.
There are a lot of reasons why we might do this. Maybe we’re crushing on someone and like looking at their face (and sending pictures of their face to our friends with heart-eye emojis). Maybe we want to know if that babe we just matched with on Tinder has similar politics.
And if this sounds innocent, it’s because it is: What harm could be done by looking at someone’s profile? We’ve probably all engaged in it to some extent (hi, hello, me). But while public information is — well — public, this behavior can be insidious in how it impacts both you and the people you’re watching.
Is this obsessive behavior hindering your ability to heal? Are you using the information you find online to cause discomfort in others? Is it making the people you’re surveilling feel nervous or uncomfortable? Are you hurting yourself and your process by stoking anger and jealousy?
There’s a point at which Instagram stalking becomes unhealthy.
Yes, like, stalking-stalking.
Most commonly, we think of stalking as someone hiding in bushes, following another person. But other examples include unwanted contact (phone calls, text messages, e-mails, DMs), unwanted gifts (letters, flowers, cards), watching from a distance (including with listening or recording devices), and unwanted presence in places someone frequents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, stalking “involves a pattern of harassing or threatening tactics… that is both unwanted and causes fear or safety concerns.”
Stalking is very common — and incredibly dangerous
More than 6.6 million adults are stalked each year in the United States and over three-quarters of them are stalked by someone they know. Stalkers are most often a current or former intimate partner or an acquaintance.
And the unfortunate fact is 76 percent of women who are murdered by a current or former intimate partner are stalked first.
While little data is available to understand how commonly rapidly developing technologies, like social media, are used to aid stalking, we do know that it happens. But we may be less likely to see the point at which Instagram stalking becomes a little scary, as surveillance behaviors are so normalized and unchallenged.
For example, have you ever noticed how you get Instagram ads for products you were just talking about? That might feel helpful at first — until you realize that your phone is literally listening to you, which is actually creepy AF. (Here’s how to change microphone settings). Similarly, because social media is so woven into our day-to-day, it might take us a moment to recognize that some of our online behavior is harmful.
Let’s look back at the introductory scenario, for example. Here, we have someone who is wrapped up in feelings of jealousy, looking at their ex’s new partner’s Instagram account and sharing what they find with their friends, mostly to receive validation.
All of this is arguably not unhealthy, even if sharing information with others to rag on someone else is flat-out mean, and even if stewing in feelings of anger isn’t doing much to regulate your nervous system. This is mostly social media-driven curiosity — not necessarily toeing the line of stalking behavior.
But what if, next, you edited New Girl’s photos in a sexual manner and sent them to your friends to humiliate her? Or what if, next, you start texting The Ex, harassing him to let him know his new partner is ugly? Or what if, next, you DMed New Girl to yell at or threaten her?
Now you’re behaving inappropriately.
- You’re using information on someone’s whereabouts or activities to harass them. Maybe when you know that New Girl is visiting with The Ex, you suddenly invent a crisis that you need him to tend to, or you start calling intermittently to scream at him, or you barrage him with non-consensual sexts.
- You’re gathering information about someone to use against them later. Maybe you and The Ex still have some contact, and when you’re talking, you bring up the birthday party that he threw for New Girl, which he never did for you. Maybe you threaten to out some newly gleaned aspect of his identity or experience in a way that would harm him.
- You’re using tagged locations to keep track of where they are. Maybe you start working out of the coffee shop that you know they frequent. Maybe you show up at the bar to start a fight.
- You’re using a fake account to hide. If you have to hide your actions, that’s a good sign that it might be inappropriate behavior. A finsta used for tracking The Ex or New Girl is like the digital version of bushes.
- You’re using social media content maliciously. Maybe you use what you see to make fun of the person you’re watching (like sending images or videos to your friends to laugh at how unattractive you find them). Maybe you use this information for revenge (like to isolate them from their community by accusing them of harmful behavior).
- You believe that you have a right to this information because of possession. For example, you think of The Ex as “yours” or of New Girl as “stealing him from me.”
- You’re using Instagram stalking to stoke anger and jealousy. While these are both healthy, normal emotions (especially to feel after a breakup), obsessing over how you’ve been wronged — rather than practicing perspective taking — as a coping mechanism can harm more than it heals.
Psychologically, we go through two major stages when it comes to love rejection: protest and resignation/despair.
Most commonly, people — and especially men — engage in stalking behavior following a breakup. It’s why the most deadly time for a survivor of intimate partner violence is up to 24 months after they leave their abuser or start a relationship with a new partner.
During the protest stage, folks can feel extreme levels of motivation to understand why they were broken up with. We’re prone to feeling restless and nostalgic and we might spend hours trying to sort out what exactly went wrong.
We get super obsessive following a breakup because our levels of serotonin drop rapidly. And because serotonin, in part, controls obsessive and compulsive behavior, this imbalance can cause violently impulsive behavior, like rages, stalking, and — yes — murder.
And it’s this same drop that can cause lower level compulsive behavior, like reading 6 months’ worth of their tweets to see what signs you may have missed or combing through their new partner’s Instagram to determine whether their relationship is actually serious or not.
Surely, your mere curiosity is normal. You’re not doing anything wrong by scrolling through Instagram. Even your hurt feelings — including those created from comparing yourself to someone else — are OK. But your motivations and subsequent behavior matter.
“Instagram stalking” (poring through someone’s page without their knowing) turns into Instagram stalking (using social media to aid in harassment) when your intentions are to cause harm — to yourself or someone else.
While we can (I hope) all understand that a cursory glance at your ex or their new partner is NBD (and a far cry from stalking with intent to murder), there are some social media behaviors — like those listed above — that cross the line from acceptable to inappropriate.
So before you start typing her name into the search box again, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What is fueling my desire to visit her page? How will I use the information that I find? Is this in service of my healing — or does this impede it?
Because while social media can be an awesome way to connect with people, using it to disconnect from your or someone else’s full humanity (like your moral code, or others’ right to privacy) is not a coping mechanism supportive to your health and happiness.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.