Study Investigates Why People Stalk Their Partners on Facebook

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Aug. 26 2013 3:17 PM

Study Investigates Why People Stalk Their Partners on Facebook

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What did he just post?

Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

New York City’s stop-and-frisk program and the NSA’s phone tapping raise constitutional questions, but at least the stated motivations are clear: to stop bad guys. But what makes someone likely to monitor a romantic partner on Facebook?

A new study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking investigates the link between a person's attachment style—how he or she connects to others, based on bonds with primary caregivers in early childhood—and interpersonal electronic surveillance (IES). Jessie Fox of Ohio State University and Katie Warber of Wittenberg University wanted to find out whether people with “preoccupied” or “fearful” attachment styles—in other words, people whose relationships are marked by high anxiety—were more likely to monitor their boyfriends or girlfriends on social networks. They also wondered whether “relationship uncertainty”—“perceptions of ambiguity” within a romantic bond—predicted heightened IES.

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The researchers recruited 328 students—women and men, 18–48, and mostly straight and white (sigh)—from a “large Midwestern university” and gave them three surveys. The first measured partner monitoring on Facebook. (For instance, respondents were asked to rate their agreement with statements like, “I visit my partner’s social networking page often.”) The second scored relationship security. (Respondents chose numbers on a 1–6 scale to reflect “how certain [they] felt in [their] relationship.) The third identified students’ real-life attachment styles, distinguishing between the “secure,” “preoccupied,” “dismissive,” and “fearful.” Then, Fox and Warber ran a battery of statistical analyses searching for connections between various answers on the three questionnaires.

You will not be surprised to learn that students with “preoccupied” or “fearful” attachment styles reported checking up more often on their romantic partners. (Seriously, Fox and Warber? You needed to conduct an experiment to figure out that people who experience more free-floating anxiety about their relationships will trawl more zealously through their partners’ feeds? Have you never watched Swimfan?) You may, however, be surprised to hear that relationship uncertainty had no bearing on IES. Whether or not students felt their romances were on shaky ground did not change their stalking habits. In other words, your obsessive monitoring of your boyfriend's Twitter feed says more about you than the relationship. Feel better?

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

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