Commentary

Social Media Makes It Harder to Move On When Relationships End

Whether you are dumped or the dumper, most people will readily agree that it’s difficult to move on from a failed relationship. It turns out we may be making it even harder on ourselves with social media, which has a way of constantly shoving painful reminders in your face in the form of photos, messages and the like. And for those inclined to wallow -- and I think we’ve all probably been there at one time or another -- social media is a virtual treasure trove of mementos suitable for morose, unshowered contemplation.

 

In fact social media may serve to delay the psychological recovery process after a relationship ends, according to a new study titled “Design for Forgetting: Disposing of Digital Possessions after a Breakup,” by UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Steve Whittaker and co-author Corina Sas of Lancaster University. According to the study, the ubiquity of “digital possessions” including photos, messages, music, email and and video “creates problems during a breakup, as people ‘inhabit’ their digital space where photos and music constantly remind them about their prior relationship.” The problem is amplified by their presence on multiple social platforms and devices, which makes it much more laborious (and therefore painful) to find and get rid of them.

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The study, which included interviews with 24 subjects ages 19-34, found that the volume of digital possessions far outnumbered the volume of physical keepsakes linked to a relationship, by a ratio of 5.4 to 1.4 (that is, subjects had an average of 5.4 digital mementos compared to 1.4 actual objects which reminded them of the relationship). In terms of format, 40% of the digital possessions consisted of photo collections, 20% were social network contacts, 7% were music collections, 6% were relationship status on social networks, 5% were emails, and 5% were text messages.

 

Facebook seems to be a particular problem area, in part because its open social structure makes it harder to control indirect exposure to former partners through friends and acquaintances. One subject reported: “Facebook doesn’t help because he can still contact my family even if I don’t speak to him… That hindered [moving on] because every time I thought I had got to the point of moving on, something would happen that would take me back to square one.” Conversely, disruption of social networks can also be traumatic, as another subject recalled: “One major change was that my ex blocked my access to his friends on Facebook.” No surprise, disengagement was a popular strategy, with a third subject noting: “I stopped using Facebook as much and so did she actually. [For a while] it gave me some distance.”

 

The researchers identified a couple distinct strategies for dealing with digital reminders of relationships past. Half the subjects deleted the content, a third kept it, and the remaining four were “selective disposers,” who got rid of some things but kept a core group of mementos for later “evocative reminiscing,” usually in a positive light. Because digital possessions are spread out across so many different devices and platforms, the authors suggest the disposal process may be aided by a software solution that “scrubs” social networks of reminders, for example using facial recognition to get rid of photos with the person in question.

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