It always begins innocently enough. You’re browsing through your Facebook feed, cheerfully clicking along, until it hits you. There it is: your ex, probably looking jaunty and well-adjusted, possibly posing blithely with a new lover.
So begins the spiral of self-despair: Internet-invoked anguish.
Presumably, it was once possible to escape an ex by simply breaking up. Now, our ex-lovers haunt us like digital ghosts, lurking in cyberspace and taunting us with phantom “pokes” and “likes.”
A Pew Research survey from last month on “Dating Digitally” confirmed that 48 percent of twentysomethings check up on old flames online (that’s double the percentage across all age groups). I think the other half is lying.
The impossibility of avoiding exes on the web invites all sorts of online-only existential dilemmas. When I see an ex appear on my GChat list, should I say hi or ignore him? When I see an ex tweet sweet nothings to his new girlfriend, should I puke or “favorite” it?
In July, New York Magazine published a beautiful essay grappling with these very issues, entitled “All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up.”
The essay’s author, Maureen O’Connor, bravely admitted to “cyberstalking” her exes. Of her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds, she says: “I start at the top and scroll down, binge-reading backward the fractured narratives of their lives. Has his sense of humor changed? Did he finally download Emoji? Who are these new people in his life?”
It’s this act of monitoring your ex online — the reminders that he’s living an enjoyable, well-adjusted life while you are here, sunk into your bed, possibly eating Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton and frantically scrolling through his Facebook profile — that can make you feel crazy.
According to a 2013 study about “Envy on Facebook,” feelings of jealousy upsurge as we watch others interacting on Facebook. Since there’s a selective bias to post photos and statuses that show us having a good time (you wouldn’t tweet about moping in bed with the Ben & Jerry’s, would you?), our perception of others is skewed to the belief that everyone else is having more fun.
So maybe we should shut our laptops, close the Facebook tab and quit scrolling through someone else’s life online.
Case in point: My ex-boyfriend from high school added me on SnapChat this week. I panicked. Did he want to see what I looked like now? Did he want to judge my life accomplishments through four-second photos? Did he finally get a smartphone, and if so, does he also have Instagram?
Inevitably, the cyber-cyclone was beginning. But instead of giving in to the temptation to tear through his Facebook, Twitter, (possibly newly created) Instagram and falling off the deep end, I sent him a friendly SnapChat — “Hey, how’s it going?” — and left it at that.
Actively engaging, instead of the one-sided cyberstalking that we’re wont to do, can help tame the feelings of insanity, jealousy and powerlessness that come from seeing our exes all over the internet.
There’s some convincing evidence that social media — Facebook, especially — makes us unhappy. But that’s only really true when we allow ourselves to be dormant bystanders instead of participants.
A 2010 study from Carnegie Mellon showed that passive interactions on social media (scrolling through a feed and reading updates on others’ lives) increased feelings of loneliness or disconnect. But active interactions (posting things on others’ pages, “liking” things and interacting with others) actually boosted confidence and social capital.
When it comes to our exes, that means quitting the passive scroll-throughs: It only makes us miserable.
That said, some find that it’s simply easier to cut all digital connections post-breakup. According to the Pew study, 36 percent of people in our age group have deliberately unfriended a past lover: When your lover becomes an ex, maybe it’s time to X out of their Facebook, too.
For those of us who want to at least feign amicable relations with former lovers, perhaps it’s better to take the plunge and reply to that Tweet or offer a friendly Facebook post. And when “liking” that picture starts to become a storm of cyberstalking — when envy arises and we start to feel tormented by an ex’s online presence — it’s probably best to simply close the page.
Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Thursday.