Why you should care

Because maybe your penchant for snooping on Facebook is actually a manifestation of an unhealthy attachment style.

It’s not a story she is particularly proud of, but JoAnne, who is adopted, says it started when she created a second Facebook profile using the birth name her biological mother had given her, in hopes of reuniting with her. The reunion didn’t happen, but JoAnne, a 54-year-old educator originally from Toronto, used that second account, with 13 friends, for two years as a way to snoop on guys she was dating or had her eye on. Like one object of her affection, who kept postponing a date (he had already agreed! several times!) and blocked her JoAnne account after she contacted him repeatedly through Facebook. Switching to Janice, she quietly monitored his page and even replied to a comment he made about music.

His response to her post? Putting up the song “Creep,” by Radiohead.

Love hurts, and for a variety of reasons, romance is often frustrating. But for some people, the inability to see, on demand and undetected, what a love interest is up to is unusual and uncomfortable. And, for certain individuals, that’s leading to mental health issues, prompting a new body of research into how such behavior on social media can lead to an unhealthy form of attachment, as well as other studies into other psychiatric conditions that may be fueled more broadly by the Internet or mobile devices. In the therapy field, it has a name: iDisorders.

By now it’s no surprise that the Internet, with its bombardment of instant and constant information about other people on Twitter, Instagram, Vine and dating apps like Tinder, has dramatically changed courting, dating, sex and relationships. But it’s Facebook in particular that has given those who study human behavior a giant lab (population: 1.49 billion monthly users and growing) to explore how 21st-century romance continues to evolve. Psychologists who specialize in the nexus of Facebook use and romantic relationships have come up with all sorts of names in recent years for obsessive activity on social media, including “creeping,” “partner-monitoring” (for those in relationships) and “facestalking” (for those taking the behavior to a potentially dangerous obsession).

Women are more likely to get jealous upon seeing certain posts and will spend more time scouring Facebook afterward.

The issue for many, say researchers, falls under what the field of psychology calls “attachment theory,” which argues that most behavior in intimate adult relationships replicates that of infants with their mothers. (Groan … if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.) Secure people with high self-esteem tend to experience healthy object permanence — that is, they believe that even if someone is off doing something else, and posting about it on a social media site, the activity isn’t a threat to the relationship. Those who suffer from insecurity or low-self esteem are connected with a lack of object permanence; the jealous type might believe she’s “out of sight, out of mind” and that her relationship is at risk.

According to Amy Muise, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at the University of Toronto Mississauga who has spent years studying the topic, women are more likely than men to become jealous after seeing certain posts — and will spend more time scouring the site after that. Muise’s research also finds that all the extra time spent on the world’s biggest social media site only further stokes women’s jealousy in a toxic feedback loop, which Muise and her co-authors describe as “anxious attachment.” The good thing with Facebook — but also the problem sometimes — is that it shows people things about their partner they might not see. “We want to see the picture, but we don’t know the context,” says Muise.

Men, meanwhile, typically practice avoidant behavior, according to Muise’s research. That’s not considered a healthy attachment style, either, though it does mean men tend to check Facebook less often when they feel jealous. Those men, and women for that matter, who use social media to creep on others may end up feeding their own anxious thoughts. In July, a study published in a cyberpsychology journal supported the theory that using Facebook can increase the intensity of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For its part, Facebook, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, has never acknowledged that its site has contributed to any disorders. And there are limitations to these findings, of course. The cyberpsychology study, for one, was based on a survey of 156 Malaysian university students, while Muise’s two studies, which have been combined into a single paper, “‘Creeping’ or Just Information Seeking?” have focused on heterosexual college students. And Muise’s research thus far has looked only at Facebook use, not Twitter, Instagram or other hugely popular social media sites. While academic interest has begun to expand to include these other sites, the connection between social media and potential social dysfunction has yet to be fully fleshed out.

Besides, voyeurism is as old as human beings, says Ross Rosenberg, author of The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. What’s changing is that stalking is “easier” because of the safety and anonymity the social media site provides, he says. If you take away the fear of being caught and legal repercussions, voyeurs will do it without impunity. While Facebook stalking can be an unhealthy obsessive disorder, Rosenberg says “there are worse forms of stalking,” citing a client whose stalker broke into her house.

Some people, though, will continue to struggle with their social media creeping. JoAnne, who acknowledges being an obsessive type — though not to the point of OCD — was horrified after her love interest discovered her second profile, and shut it down. She has since moved to the Dominican Republic and says she is now dating someone she cannot digitally follow … because he doesn’t use Facebook. “I have no way to snoop [on] him,” she says, “which is kind of frustrating.”

Libby Coleman contributed reporting to this story.

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