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Breaking up in the age of social media: It’s harder than it sounds


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Silvia Lucchetti - Matthew Green - published on 09/05/20

Online reminders of your ex make it harder to move on from a relationship than it used to be.

Mourning a love story that has ended is never an easy task, but in the digital age the job is even more difficult than it used to be. Researchers at the University of Colorado reached this conclusion through interviews with a sample of 19 people who had suffered an unpleasant emotional breakup in the year and a half before the survey. Even when people were trying to eliminate exes from their lives, social networks continued to inundate them with information and memories about their former other half.

Breakups have never been easy, but before the age of social media, “it was much easier to get distance from the person,” said Anthony Pinter, lead author of the study, in an article on the University of Colorado website CU Boulder Today. He said,

“It can make it almost impossible to move on if you are constantly being bombarded with reminders in different places online … 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. Our work shows this is not the case.”

Harder than it seems

The Facebook news feed was reported to be one of the worst offenders, because it brings notifications from exes who change their relationship status to “in a relationship,” thus informing us they’ve officially moved on. Facebook also send endless “Memories” of years past, bringing up photos of happier times before the break-up.

We run the risk of digitally running into our exes when we least expect it through their comments in shared spaces: groups, event pages or photos of common friends. “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,” Pinter told CU Boulder Today’s Lisa Marshall.


Read more:
A list of things to do when faced with heartbreak

“Take a break”

The people who design and run social networks aren’t oblivious to these problems. As one means of dealing with this situation, Facebook has implemented a feature in which, if someone changes their relationship status from “in a relationship” to “single,” the system automatically offers the option of “taking a break” from seeing publications and notifications from or about their ex. This can be helpful, but it presupposes that you’re using the “relationship status” function; many people do not, for privacy reasons or other motives.

Even if you manually select the option to “take a break,” unfriend, or block an ex, the people in their circle will continue to appear as “friend suggestions.” The algorithm’s social media use are not sensitive to all the nuances of human relationships and the complexity of real human networks. It can be very hard to truly escape reminders of the past relationship. “Am I never going to be free of all this crap online?” one participant said, according to the CU article.


Read more:
St. Francis de Sales’ guide to using social media

Humanizing algorithms

The University of Colorado’s study is part of a more ambitious project funded by the National Science Foundation, called “Humanizing algorithms.” The goal is “identifying and offering solutions for ‘algorithm insensitivity.’” In the meantime, Pinter’s suggestion in the CU article is that people who are going through or recovering from a breakup should “take a break from social media for a while until you are in a better place.”

It would seem that the project to improve the algorithms in this area has quite a challenge before it. Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, and even many adult human beings aren’t consistently good at being sensitive to delicate human situations in the digital realm (or outside of it).

For example, it doesn’t help that sometimes, if we haven’t blocked our ex and they haven’t blocked us, they may be “orbiting” us: keeping track of our activity, maybe liking posts and watching our stories, but never commenting or messaging. There can be a variety of motives for this kind of behavior; perhaps they want to avoid committing to a clean break, staying in a sort of limbo, haunting us without engaging or letting go. Such ambiguity can be disturbing for the “orbited” person and unhealthy for the orbiter.

Also unhelpful is the opposite: “ghosting,” when someone cuts us off completely on all social media and digital contact, from one moment to the next, without any explanation. This behavior can preclude the kind of closure that helps both parties move on healthily. (Of course, there are times when we realize that an online relationship is already unhealthy or even possibly dangerous, and needs to be cut off immediately, but that’s a different situation.)

Social media: an uncontrolled experiment

Maybe a lesson we can learn from all of this is that social media are still a massive experiment. Digital social networks as we know them today have been around for less than 40 years; the most popular ones in use today are less than 20 years old, and some appear or disappear every year. There is no uniform regulation of their activities, no clear “control group” against which to measure their impact, no reliable oversight. They’ve revolutionized many aspects of social life, and we’re just beginning to experience and understand the consequences this will bring.

As much as they can be a boon—especially in times like these when physical presence and face-to-face social interaction is limited—we need to be wary. Instead of looking at people who abstain from social media as Luddites or antisocial weirdos, perhaps we should appreciate their caution and think twice about how much of our lives we live online. At the very least, we should probably keep in mind that humanity has survived for many thousands of years without the Internet in general and social media in particular. If social media make us uncomfortable, we shouldn’t feel pressured to participate more than truly necessary.


Read more:
The 3 golden rules of communicating on social media

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