Say there’s this guy, John. You met him the other weekend at a party through a friend of a friend. He was cute and tall, so you gave him your number and you’ve been texting ever since. After a solid week of small talk and mild banter, he asks you out. You hesitate. How much do you really know about this so called John? You’re not just going to rock up to this date without any information are you? I mean, the guy could be a murderer or worse: a real life STALKER! No, you simply can’t take that chance. So what do you do? You jump online, go onto your friend’s Facebook profile, search for the party host, scroll through her friends list and bingo – you’ve found him. John Smith – original. After scrolling through his pics, you tell yourself the same fateful tale every girl does – he just doesn’t photograph well – and peruse his wall only stopping short of the ‘joined Facebook’ milestone. John, as it turns out, isn’t a murderer. He’s an accountant who spends most weekends playing scrabble with his mother. Serial killer or not, I think we can safely say, crisis averted. All thanks to a little investigative work.
This online screening process is very much part of the modern dating scene. According to Match.com, nearly half of all single women conduct online “research” about their potential partners before a first date. The other half, well, they’re just lying. This so called “research” usually goes by a more sinister name – Interpersonal Electronic Surveillance (IES) or social media stalking to us regular folk.
It sounds bad, I know. But, if the lyrics from The Police’s “Every breath you take” are coming to mind, you’re pretty far off base. I’m not talking about stalkers in the conventional sense – you know, the one’s that peep through your bedroom window while you sleep or follow your every movement (not literally anyway). I’m talking about those individuals who us social media to monitor the online behaviours of others.
If you’re anything like me, you practice this kind of behaviour on the daily. And it’s not just to investigate prospective partners either. It’s anyone really. I’ll often fall down the social media rabbit hole only to emerge with trivial nonsense about my friend’s-cousin’s-roommate’s-sister’s-pet guinea pig. I’ll find myself 68 weeks deep into some random’s Instagram, cursing my butter fingers for issuing that inevitable double-tap.
But what’s the harm in a little stalking sesh? Aside from the fact that we’re lurking behind digital screens, mining information about the personal lives of unsuspecting strangers. To be fair, though, this information is readily available. It’s basically an online free-for-all. As long as we’re prepared to accept the fact that we’re creepers, it’s A-Okay. But, as the old saying goes, curiosity killed the cat. And probably the social media stalker too.
In fact, these online behaviours have been linked to an array of problematic health outcomes including depression, insecurity and low levels of self-esteem. This is because “social” platforms such as Facebook deliver a procession of idealised images, projecting a show-reel of life’s chosen highlights. Via this platform, identity is packaged, presented and sold like any other commodity – the currency being perceived social value. Everyone is hyper-aware of how they present themselves online and this, in itself, becomes a performance – an endless parade of our personal achievements, our full social lives and our (seemingly) perpetual happiness. The personal brand we present is only a fraction of our true selves – if at all! It’s merely a marketing ploy, smoke and mirrors. We know this. Hell, we even do it ourselves! And yet, we fall for it every time. 50% of Australian teens and 25% of adults experience a Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), a diagnosis perpetuated by social media. According to the Australian Psychological Society, heavy users across both demographics are significantly more likely to experience these adverse effects. Amid the pregnancy announcements and job promotions, relationship status updates and ‘frenaversaries’, real life seems quite dull and insignificant. For our fellow social media stalkers, one cannot help but compare the two often leading to an overwhelming sense of disillusionment.
So, why do we do it then? According to social psychologist, Leon Festinger, there is an unconscious driver that compels each of us to evaluate success and assess self-worth by comparing ourselves to others. This enables us to exchange our uncertainty in social domains for a more accurate definition of self. For our fellow stalkers, upward social comparisons are most common. These are responsible for the negative outcomes mentioned above, drawing comparisons between ourselves and those we deem superior. It is no surprise that this process makes us feel inferior. By making these forms of digital comparisons with those we perceive to be better than us, we are constantly reminded of our fallibility. It negatively reaffirms our self-concept by diminishing our social capital and wellbeing; all in all, not a great feeling.
So, next time you’re contemplating that date with John or considering falling down the social media rabbit hole, put down the phone, step away from Facey and do not, I repeat, do not consult Insta. It may just be the best thing you do.