17 February 2020
New York: Estrangement has become harder in the digital age and social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, can make break-ups much worse, say researchers. People who use features like unfriending, unfollowing or blocking still face troubling encounters with ex-partners online.
For the study, published in the journal 'Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction', the researchers recruited people who had upsetting encounter online within 18 months of parting and interviewed them for over an hour.
"Even before social media break-ups sucked, but it was much easier to get away from the person. It can make moving on almost impossible if you are constantly being bombarded with reminders in different places online," said study lead researcher Anthony Pinter from University of Colorado Boulder in the US.
According to researchers, among 19 who underwent in-depth interviews, a disturbing trend emerged: Even when people took every measure possible to remove their exes from their online lives, social media returned them - often multiple times a day.
"A lot of people assume they can just unfriend their ex or unfollow them, and won't have to deal with them anymore. Our work shows it's not the case," Pinter said.
News Feed, the primary interface that opens when one goes for Facebook, was a major source of distress, delivering news of ex-lovers announcing they were in new relationship.
In one case, a participant noticed his roommate had "liked" his ex's post. He was the last of his friends to know.
Memories revived by posts from the past were equally heart-rending, with one participant recalling how a sweet years-old message from his ex-wife popped up out of nowhere delivering an "emotional wallop," the researchers said.
According to the study, many shared stories of encountering exes via their comments in shared spaces, such as groups or mutual friends' pictures. Even when someone unfriends his/her ex, if a mutual friend posts a picture without tagging them that may still flow through their feed.
And even when they blocked their exes some reported that the ex's friends and family would still show up on Facebook as suggestions under 'People you may know'.
The authors suggest such encounters could be minimised with platform designers paying more attention to the "social periphery" - all those people, groups, photos and events that spring up around a connection between two users.
For those wanting to rid their online lives from reminders of love lost, they recommend unfriending, untagging, using Take a Break and blocking while understanding they may not be foolproof.