Who have you Facebook stalked recently? A former relationship partner? A current relationship partner? A colleague? A “friend” you’ve connected with on Facebook but don’t actually speak to with any regularity? Maybe your interest was piqued by a photo or status that person posted that seems to be getting a lot of attention within their circle. Or maybe this is just a way you spend part of your day. Whatever the case may be, Facebook stalking—perusing (or obsessively checking) the details of a contact's page to learn about what they’ve been up to—is a pretty common type of silent interaction. It’s a way to get information without having to do any of the work required for a social encounter. But it can be detrimental. Facebook stalking can be particularly damaging following a break-up as it becomes apparent that one person has moved on from the relationship. And it can hurt current relationships—both romantic and otherwise—as you may wind up learning something about a person that changes your opinion of them and ultimately impacts the relationship. Why do we do it? Social media has made digital voyeurism the norm. If the opportunity exists, we may look. However, it seems some of us are more inclined to pursue online surveillance than others. And it's our relationships with our early caregivers that may guide this tendency.
One measure of relationships is the emotional bonds that connect individuals. As children we develop an attachment to the people who provide for our safety and security. Psychologist John Bowlby, who pioneered attachment theory, believed this is an adaptive response as it enhances our chances for survival. Adults can encourage these attachments by interpreting and responding sensitively to the needs expressed by the infant, and helping them manage the stress they're experiencing. However, these attachments don't have to be reciprocal. infants will form attachments even if they're not encouraged to do so--after all, they have little means of removing themselves from undesirable caregiving situations. The reciprocity between the infant and caregiver directs the type of attachment that develops. Building on Bowlby's work, psychologist Mary Ainsworth found the nature of the caregiving experience can generate four different types of attachment:
- Secure attachment: Infants feel they can rely on their caregivers to meet their needs. This sense of security manifests as confidence as these infants are more inclined to explore within the presence of the caregiver. They are also distressed when the caregiver leaves but are happy when he or she returns because the infant is assured that their needs and communication will be met. (It's understood that every single need will not be met. Secure attachment hinges on the successful communication between the infant and caregiver, and having that communication be successful most of the time.)
- Anxious-ambivalent attachment: Infants are less likely to explore and are hesitant to interact with strangers, even if the caregiver is present. They experience separation anxiety when removed from the caregiver, but are not comforted when reunited. In fact, the infant may display anger toward the caregiver, which Ainsworth believed to be an attempt to control the availability of the caregiver via the child's limited means.
- Anxious-avoidant attachment: Infants avoid the caregiver because their needs are not being met. Ainsworth suggested that by not demanding the caregiver's attention, the infant would be able to remain close enough for the caregiver to provide protection if needed but far away enough to not be pushed away. This distancing, both physically and emotionally, helps the child manage any desires for attention—if the infant becomes distressed by the lack of caregiver’s attention, it may push the caregiver away removing the potential for protection.
- Disorganized attachment: There is no attachment.
As social creatures attachment seems to be a natural tendency that may be beneficial beyond infancy and childhood. Recently, these patterns of attachment have been applied to adults, providing a way to look at the nature of the connections in romantic relationships. Securely attached adults have positive outlooks concerning themselves, their partners, and their relationships. While anxiously attached adults tend to be less trusting and worry more in their relationships. They demand higher degrees of responsiveness from partners, including intimacy and approval, and may become overly dependent or express excessive attachment. They are more likely to try to establish a reconnection following a break-up. Avoidant adults view themselves as self-sufficient and believe they do not need close relationships. They may suppress their feelings and are willing to employ distancing in anticipation of rejection. They’re more likely to look for or consider alternatives to the relationship as they ultimately believe the relationship will not last.
Anxiously attached adults have a positive association with both seeking alternatives and investment in their relationships. The insecurities they have about their relationships and their partners require more from the individual. They're constantly trying to maintain a connection, giving a part of themselves even if it's not reciprocated. These are the individuals who are more inclined to participate in Facebook stalking following a break-up. The greater the commitment, the greater the distress following the break-up, particularly for the recipient in this circumstance. This may drive the individual to monitor the Facebook activity of his or her former partner to see if they have moved on and how they are occupying their days. The potential exists here for a cycle of distress to unfold that inhibits healing and the ability to move on. Constantly reviewing a former partner's profile might lead an individual to draw comparisons against a new partner or to dwell on the relationship itself, as social networking sites can help maintain a record of the relationship if the information isn't deleted.
Our early experiences can indeed have a lasting impact on our lives. And as we learn a great deal about the world and about how to relate to others during this stage, the relationships we have with our initial caregivers are important. It's not impossible to overcome the potential hurdles that can result from disturbances to these relationships, but interaction in online spaces changes the mechanisms that might help us move past hurt and rejection. A break-up changes the dynamic of our networks overall. It requires the removal of a role and possibly the removal of an individual. These actions are vital to the health of the network overall, as they impact how other members of the network interact with each other and with the affected parties. Offline there is a break. And we can mourn and grieve the loss of the relationship, and eventually restructure our network and move one. Online this break does not necessarily exist. If we aren't required to disconnect or break the connection, we never allow the network to regenerate.
Facebook stalking and other forms of online surveillance made possible through social networks may be a part of our new reality. The long term impact of this behavior on our relationships overall may ultimately come back to drive the nature of those early relationships we develop with our caregivers to create a new established model for overall attachment. The result may be less securely attached individuals since the social world presently thrives on generating anxiety, jealousy, and insecurity through a display of perfection and happiness which may not actually exist.
Fox Jesse and Tokunaga Robert S.. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. September 2015, 18(9): 491-498. doi:10.1089/cyber.2015.0123.
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