Social media

Facebook is making breakups sadder 

May 13, 2013 at 2:23 PM ET

Young man working on laptop computer in cafe
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After a breakup, generations of newly single guys and gals have sought comfort in shredding letters, taking a scissor to photos, maybe even burning gifts. But in the age of Facebook and Gmail, how is one to forget?

Digital memories like emails or photos or shared music are making more of a mental mark than gifts of physical trinkets left behind after a failed relationship. Does Facebook make a breakup more painful? "Absolutely," Corina Sas says.

"I think Facebook is particularly problematic," Sas, a human-computer interaction researcher from the University of Lancaster, told TODAY, because shared friends and a constant stream of updates makes avoiding an ex and letting go much harder. "The other person is just a click away, there's almost this continual contact which is very compelling."

In a recent study, Sas teamed up with a colleague at University of California at Santa Cruz and polled 24 19- to 34-year-olds about their post-breakup actions in a digital world. The group presented their work at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems held in Paris at the beginning of May.

The subjects Sas interviewed tended to be one of "Deleters" or "Keepers," either purging files and photos right away, or holding on to old emails, photos, and Facebook updates for months after a split.

"Deleting everything was a kind of symbolic gesture of starting fresh as well as not having to look at it again," one purger told Sas.

One small group dealt with digital memories in what seemed to be a healthier way, waiting until a few weeks or months had passed before choosing what they kept and what they deleted. At least two people said that avoiding Facebook access helped. "I stopped using Facebook as much and so did she actually. [For a while] it gave me some distance," reported one responder. And another: "It helped a lot not following him on any social networking site. For sure, as those things are kind of intense."

Later, members of this group would return to their memories and sift through them, deciding which to keep and which to throw out. "They're not doing it angrily but mindfully," Sas explained. "They're doing it almost ritually — when they are deleting everything they use it to liberate themselves and to move on."

These folks tended to come away with a better sense of how the ended relationship would fit into the story of their life, Sas observed. As one responder wrote: "I’m glad I met him and glad we broke up. He helped me figure out what I don’t want or need in a relationship, so for that I am thankful."

But for those without a steely will to ignore their Facebook, Sas is thinking about "technologies for 'self-control,'" gatekeeper apps say, that you can set to block access to an ex's Facebook age.

As for that overwhelming number of digital memories are "very very emotionally taxing" to round up manually, Sas suggests that another useful app would use keywords or facial recognition to collect all digital evidence of a relationship. It could be set up to loc them away, with the option for the vault to open after a few weeks or months.

Another alternative, Sas says, is a service that lets a person creatively "transform their memories into a digital artifact." Craft has been identified as a powerful way of dealing with grief, and such a digital equivalent could be cathartic after a breakup.

Yet another line of research could explore digital purges that are more satisfying than just pressing the "delete" key. "Not everything should be kept forever in the digital space," Sas says, but considering how persistent the Internet can be, she has a hard fight ahead.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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