From #MessyTikTok to #StayToxic, is social media sleuthing ruining your love life?

By Amy Rose Everett

Published Nov 22, 2022 at 10:51 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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The daily doomscroll. On the toilet, in bed—wherever you’re doing it, just five minutes of flipping through your TikTok FYP represents an infinite number of ways in which you could come across a piece of information with the potential to ruin your day—and more often than not, your relationship too.

People are flocking to share intimate details of their love lives with complete strangers online. From #storytime and #messytiktok to #revengetok and #staytoxic, on TikTok, our deepest traumas can be triggered at any time with just a flick of our thumbs. This, in turn, begs the question: can watching these videos on a daily basis influence our own relationships? My personal opinion? Definitely. All too often.

Caught your boyfriend cheating? You can expose him, then douse everything he owns in glitter. Feeling lonely? A scroll through #breakuptok connects the ghosted, the breadcrumbed, and the unceremoniously dumped. A big trend is videoing oneself mid-breakdown. The dumpee might sob uncontrollably or stare into space, a single tear rolling down a puffy cheek. Most videos are overlaid with text narrating their story, ramped up with a sad song.

@symonneharrisonofficial

breakups are hard.💔

♬ original sound - Feelz

As an attempt at capturing and communicating the subject’s raw feelings, these videos can be upsetting, and even disturbing to watch (particularly if you’re going through, or have been through, something similar). While most users actively seek comfort and connection at a vulnerable moment in their lives, others want control and empowerment—and this is where things can get complicated.

Just check the comments under any viral video that details cheating, lying, or betrayal. Here, hundreds of users will lend support, detailing their own traumatic experiences, while others share tricks to prevent heartbreak and betrayal. Spoiler alert: you can’t really achieve the latter—but reading them will make you think you can.

Suspicious lovers swap notes on how to check a partner’s internet history to see if they’re cheating. Tinder users remind each other that you can check when your hook-up last used the app, because their geographical location updates each time they open it. Some even admit to looking at their ex’s Spotify playlists, searching for hidden meaning. Meanwhile, unrequited lovers screenshot their crush’s Snapscore to check if it’s just them they’re ignoring and some people even scrutinise their partner’s Venmo purchases looking for clues.

Seasoned sleuthers can go so far as to hack into or create fake Instagram accounts, specifically with the intent to monitor what their person of interest is doing. Some send text messages hoping to catch them red-handed by pretending to be someone else entirely, while others employ ‘honey trappers’ to test their partner’s loyalty. Many of these practices could be classed as cyberstalkinga criminal offence under American anti-stalking, slander, and harassment laws—plus, they’re detrimental to overall health and happiness.

Relationship expert Jessica Alderson told SCREENSHOT: “Many of the viewers of videos and comments like this would have never thought to conduct research like that. In addition, seeing other people social media sleuthing and telling their stories can make people insecure about their own relationships which, in turn, can cause them to do things that they wouldn’t have otherwise done. This is more likely to cause problems than provide solutions.”

Alderson went on to add: “It’s now easier than ever to look someone up online, and with that has come a greater potential for misuse. This can result in serious psychological consequences such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.”

Whether you’ve just been broken up with—drink your water, eat your vegetables, you’ve got this—you’re navigating a situationship, or you’ve been with your person for years, copying this TikTok activity puts you at risk of unnecessary issues and disputes.

Few of us could truly say that we’ve never engaged in a little light stalking. You know the drill—you meet someone new, give them a follow, and carry out a routine vibe check. It’s all too easy to find yourself lurking five years deep into their grid, doing everything not to accidentally tap the heart button as you note that their ex-partner is annoyingly beautiful, a great dancer, and speaks seven languages.

Suddenly, your mind works overtime to piece together the ‘evidence’ it has now gathered, weaving a (completely made up) narrative that clouds your thoughts. Out of nowhere, you might feel insecure, unsettled, and even a bit sad—a feeling that can linger.

You’ve given your brain the chance to ruminate on a person’s past—a past they are completely entitled to have. At best, you’ve robbed yourself of an opportunity to start fresh with this person, hearing their stories the way they wanted to tell them. At worst, you come out feeling less cool, fun, or attractive than previous people they’ve been close to. This can do nothing but hurt your relationship or hook-up, and it might stop it from happening altogether.

It’s a lose-lose situation. So, what do we do about it? For a lot of us, the process involves the hardest task of all: taking a break from social media altogether.

“Focus on making your life the best it can be. This might involve spending time with your friends, pursuing your passions, or taking on an extra project at work,” Alderson advised.

“Essentially, you want to divert your time and attention elsewhere, to activities that make a positive difference in your life,” she continued.

Easier said than done. Need some tips? Alderson’s got you covered:

– Practise mindful social media use. Take regular breaks from your devices and spend that time engaging in activities that don’t involve technology, such as physical exercise, reading, or creative hobbies.

– If you catch yourself feeling tempted to start looking up information about people online, pause and ask yourself what you’ll gain from doing it. Consider whether the risks outweigh the benefits. One point to be particularly mindful of is that what you see online may not be accurate, and it can often be misleading.

– Setting clear boundaries when it comes to looking people up online can help if you are prone to social media sleuthing. For some, this might involve not Googling someone until they hit a certain milestone, such as the fifth date or the ‘exclusive’ status in a relationship. For others, this could mean no social media sleuthing at all, or only looking up certain information once if you feel like it will improve your sense of safety on a date.

– Ask yourself whether your interest is coming from a healthy place. Wanting to discover more about someone you like is completely natural, but before looking them up online, reflect on whether your desire is coming from a healthy place or a place of insecurity. This is one of the best litmus tests to help figure out whether you should take a certain course of action.

What to do if you’ve become a victim of social media sleuthing

– Take steps to protect yourself online. This could include changing your privacy settings and being mindful of the information you share publicly. A social media audit is always a good idea, which involves going through all of your accounts and deleting or adjusting any information that you don’t want people to see.

– Give yourself time to grieve. This might take a while, and that’s okay. When someone has invaded your privacy in this way, it can be a traumatic experience. You want to ensure that you process your emotions as best as possible in order to reduce the risk of experiencing trust issues going forward. 

– If you’ve been a victim of social media sleuthing, you should seek help from people close to you or professionals. It can be hard to heal and move on.

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