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10 March 2020

Trying to get over a breakup? Social media will only make it worse – even if you block or unfollow your ex

Breakups were never easy back in the day, but they can be even messier and a whole lot more painful in the digital age.

Getting over a breakup doesn’t happen overnight, but staying connected to social media is not going to bring you closer to the peace and healing you’re seeking. That’s according to new research from the University of Colorado Boulder that explored how breaking up is tougher to do in the online age.

"Before social media, breakups still sucked, but it was much easier to get distance from the person," said Anthony Pinter, a doctoral student in the information science department and lead author of the study.

"It can make it almost impossible to move on if you are constantly being bombarded with reminders in different places online."

Think about it. You forgot to unfriend your ex, and wake up to them posting they’re “in a new relationship”. Or, perhaps you see his sister under the platform’s “People You May Know” whimsical feature. It could feel like there’s no escaping. 

And when Facebook launches a timeline memory of the two of you enjoying a date night (that you’ll now always remember)? That timeline exploding into little highlights of happy moments in your relationship certainly won’t help you to let go of the past.

No escape

Participants who had experienced an upsetting encounter online involving a breakup within the past 18 months were recruited and interviewed for over an hour.

Among 19 participants who underwent in-depth interviews, it was found that even when they took every step to remove their exes from their online lives, social media reminded them – several times a day – putting them in an emotional tailspin. Not fun, especially once you’ve started to come to terms with the fact that the relationship is over and started to heal from the pain of the breakup.

And in even more dispiriting news: "A lot of people make the assumption that they can just unfriend their ex or unfollow them and they are not going to have to deal with this anymore," said Pinter. In fact, their research shows quite the opposite. 

News Feed is 'the devil'

If you’re on Facebook then you will be familiar with News Feed, the primary interface that opens when one launches Facebook. This interface, respondents said, is a major source of distress, as it delivers news of ex-lovers, like announcing that they're in a new relationship.

In the case of one participant, his social media profile worked against him during his breakup when he noticed his roommate had already "liked" his ex's post announcing their new relationship, saying that he was the last to know about it.

Seeing their exes leaving comments in shared spaces, such as groups or mutual friends' pictures, was also a common complaint by participants.

"In real life, you get to decide who gets the cat and who gets the couch, but online it's a lot harder to determine who gets this picture or who gets this group," said Pinter.

But, wait, what about Facebook’s 2015 ‘Take A Break’ feature that promised to stop reminding you about your unwelcome memories? 

Well, that feature only works if Facebook knew you were in a relationship. When you switch to “single”, you’re then asked if you want activities that are linked to your ex to be hidden. But if you don’t use the Relationship Status tool, those reminders will keep coming.

“Am I never going to be free of all this crap online?" asked one exasperated participant.

All this distress seems justified to the research team conducting the study, aimed at identifying and offering solutions for "algorithmic insensitivity".

Simply put, the authors would like such unpleasant encounters be minimised, and platform designers pay more attention to the "social periphery" – all those people, groups, photos and events that spring up around a connection between two users.

Their research stems from a larger National Science Foundation grant award called Humanizing Algorithms.

"The algorithms are really good at seeing patterns in clicks, likes and when things are posted, but there is a whole lot of nuance in how we interact with people socially that they haven't been designed to pick up," said Assistant Professor Jed Brubaker at UCB and researcher of the study, Jed Brubaker.

Healing rationally

Life can be unimaginable without social media, but if you truly want to rid your online life from reminders of a break up, the researchers recommend unfriending or blocking, and untagging your ex in all photos and videos. The Take a Break feature might work, but remember that it may not be foolproof.

Your best bet? "Take a break from social media for a while until you are in a better place," said Pinter.

If you aren’t feeling like you’re floating in inner peace, then for the process of acceptance, forgiveness and moving on to happen, we agree with Pinter – getting off social media entirely will help you to cleanse your life of any negative energy. This doesn’t mean you have to hole up in your home.

Instead, spend quality time with your loved ones, do some travelling if you have the means, and take charge of your life. Getting over the breakup isn’t going to happen overnight, but focusing on yourself and the things that bring you happiness is an effective way to get you through the situation.

Image: Erik Lucatero, Unsplash

 
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