Behavior

Seriously, stop stalking your ex on Facebook

Sep. 19, 2012 at 7:36 PM ET

If you continue to Facebook-stalk your ex like a creepy weirdo, you will never ever get over him or her, a new study shows. 

Oh, you know you do it. But then, so do the rest of us -- in fact, a much-publicized study earlier this summer found that almost 90 percent of us keep tabs on our exes on Facebook. Now, researchers at Brunel University in London confirmed what we already, somewhere deep down, suspected to be true: Spying on your former partner's profile page will only prolong your heartache. 

"Overall, these findings suggest that exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may obstruct the process of healing and moving on from a past relationship," the study authors write in a report just published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking

The researchers rounded up 484 volunteers -- 84 percent of whom were female, all of whom were Facebook users -- and asked them to recall a bad breakup with someone who also had a Facebook page. Participants were instructed to rate how upset they were immediately after the breakup, and they were asked two pointed questions about their level of Facebook creepiness: "How often do you look at your ex-partner's Facebook page?" and "How often do you look at your ex-partner's list of Facebook friends?" They were also asked things like how sad they still were when they thought about the breakup, whether they still desired their ex sexually and how much life change they'd experienced since the breakup. 

Not surprisingly, people who admitted to stalking their exes on Facebook experienced more heartache over the breakup -- and, in the paper's most cringe-inducing finding, they were more likely to want to jump back into bed with him or her. Plus, "Facebook surveillance," as the study authors term it, was correlated with "lower personal growth" -- in other words, you're not moving on, or bothering to create a different life for your newly single self.  Here's a great quote from the study -- somehow, seeing Facebook stalking described in academic-ese makes it sound even sadder:

(P)eople may use Facebook to keep tabs on an ex-partner's current activities by checking on his or her status updates, wall posts, comments, and photos; even if one is no longer Facebook friends with an ex-partner, publicly available information -- such as a profile photo and list of friends -- can still provide a rough approximation of the ex-partner's ongoing activities.

But immediately deleting your former partner from your Facebook friends isn’t necessarily the answer, either. In a counterintuitive finding in the British study, people seemed to recover more quickly from the sting of the breakup when they stayed Facebook friends with their ex-partners. 

One theory the researchers pose: If you stay Facebook friends, chances are the breakup was amicable in the first place. (We can all assume Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are at least still Facebook friends, right? Right?!) But here’s another, funnier theory of theirs: Staying Facebook friends with an ex, and seeing the humdrum of his or her life presented in Instagram photos or boring status updates (“Thanks for all the birthday wishes!!!” “First pumpkin spice latte of the season!!”) might effectively kill off any lingering desire you may have harbored for that person.

On the other hand, former partners we no longer see or speak to -- online or otherwise -- "may remain shrouded in an alluring mystique, suggesting that remaining Facebook friends with an ex-partner may actually help rather than harm one's postbreakup recovery," says the report, which was led by Brunel social psychologist Tara C. Marshall. 

Still, staying Facebook friends isn’t a perfect solution -- people who stayed friends on the social networking site were less likely to have experienced new life changes, or "personal growth," after the breakup, suggesting that they're not moving on. 

Bottom line, the same old advice is still in play here for mending a broken heart: Cut off contact as much as you can, and give it time. As the Brunel paper phrases it, "Avoiding exposure to an ex-partner, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart." 

You can creepily spy on TODAY.com health editor Melissa Dahl on Twitter all you want!

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