Stalkers aren’t just creeps who wear trench coats and spy on people from behind broadsheet newspapers. Nor are they dubious moles peering through your living room window. I’m a stalker, and I do it from the comfort of my own home. I bet you’re a stalker too. Social media has turned us all into an exceptionally nosy bunch.
How many times have you snooped on someone else’s Facebook profile without actually adding them as a friend? I was out for dinner with my gal pals one evening when one of them told us a very juicy story. It was about a friend of hers who’d had an affair, and within minutes, we all had our phones out to see what she and her bit-on-the-side looked like. We then trawled through her heartbroken husband’s profile before deciding he was very handsome and absolutely deserved better. We’d seen where he went to college, where he worked, photos of his children and competitions he’d entered. The whole stalking experience was strangely normal – none of us questioned the ethics of nosing through a stranger’s business. It was almost second nature.
There’s a sociological reason for this, according to a study carried out at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. It found that stalking someone’s online profile fulfils our own individual social needs. It seems that we love to look at the lives of others because they help us to evaluate our own identities, reassure us about where we should be at in our particular stage in life, and be entertained.
We’re also biologically designed to be curious (read nosy). Neuroscientist Beau Lotto told Quartz that our brains are not static, but malleable and constantly seeking new information. Social curiosity is part of being human and it’s driven by a general interest in the way other people feel, think, and behave. As well as that, a study published in the journal PLOS One shows that gossip is an inherent part of human nature, “serving predominantly entertainment purposes.” It’s natural to want to know (and later talk about) what other people are up to.
But “looking for gossip” isn’t always fun. I have a friend who split from her boyfriend a few months ago and she constantly sifts through his social media to see if he’s moved on. She gets upset when she sees him in photos with other women, and no matter how much it hurts, she can’t let go. She's not the only one. According to a recent survey of 3,000 people in Men’s Health, 85% of people stalk their exes on Facebook following a breakup, while 59% admit trying to find “clues about their relationships with other people.” That can’t be healthy. In fact, Dr Ilana Gershon, a professor of communication and culture at Indiana University, notes that it causes “enormous anxiety”.
It’s easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole. One minute you’re on your ex-boyfriend’s Instagram, and the next, you’ve searched his new girlfriend’s newsfeed and are now scrolling through her ex’s page. Time passes so quickly and before you know it, you’re twenty minutes in and feeling anxious and lonely.
However, it’s not just our emotions on the line. The information we choose to share online can even impact our working lives, as many employers are social stalkers too. According to recruitment company CareerBuilder, 70% of employers check the social media profiles of job applicants as part of the recruitment process. As well as that, they tend to keep an eye on the profiles of those they’ve hired to ensure nothing negative is being said about the brand online. ‘Loose lips sink ships’ is a warning plastered on the walls of many office canteens.
Given how rampant this social stalking is, it’s important to address the issue of privacy. When was the last time you checked your privacy settings on Facebook? Are all of your posts public? Can ‘friends of friends’ see what you’ve shared? By setting our profiles to public we’re leaving ourselves open to being stalked. As much as a sneaky creep on someone else’s page is enjoyable, I’d feel horribly exposed if someone were to have a creep on mine – *queue frantic privacy settings adjustment*.