Are you a Facebook stalker? Nearly everyone has indulged in the secret satisfaction that comes with spying on a life that no longer has you in it. In fact, a study out of The University of Western Ontario shows that 88 percent of Facebook users fessed up to spending time creeping on someone else’s profile.
The motivations behind the practice vary wildly, from schadenfreude to curiosity. But why do we do it? What do we get out of it?
“We’re hardwired to pay attention to other people,” says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, who studies the impact of media and technology on our lives. “Even if we broke something off, we want to fundamentally believe that no one can replace us. We want affirmation that we’re valued or a good person, so we’re hoping that without us they’re going to be a little bit sad or suffer a little bit.”
It’s satisfying for us because we attach personal meaning to that person, Rutledge says, even if we’re not connected anymore. (And from a procrastination standpoint, it mostly beats whatever work we should be doing.)
Not all social media sites are made equal, though, and newbie cyber stalkers have a real risk of exposing themselves, either by liking something on Facebook by accident or forgetting that LinkedIn shows who’s viewed a profile. Start-ups are constantly trying to find ways to reveal who has looked at a profile page (shudder!). Facebook claims it won't happen.
But unless stalking leads to threats or trespassing, the risks of spying are slim to none—and as long as the object of the attention has no idea, the psychological fallout lands only on the stalker.
“You’re not endangering someone, you’re just being really curious,” Rutledge says. “Obviously, there’s a fine line. If you are investing a lot of time following someone, then you probably ought to evaluate how you’re spending your time. At that point, it’s become totally about you. It isn’t about the other person at all.”