As the adage goes, a crush is just a lack of information. But in the age of unlimited access to other people’s lives, a crush is now a quest for information.
“[When I have a crush on someone,] I go on Instagram and click on relevant-looking profiles until I find them to see if we have any mutual friends. Then I either do a blanket Google search or go on LinkedIn to get information there,” Lily*, a 23-year-old in San Francisco, tells Mashable.
We’re living through the age of delusion
“I don’t feel like it crosses a boundary, because people have a responsibility to know what’s out there about them. I took my Max Preps Sports profile and writing from college down,” Kate*, a 23-year-old working in Wisconsin politics with a proclivity for stalking her crushes online, told Mashable.
The good and bad of online stalking
Online stalking can be defined as a wide range of information-gathering practices that are frequently targeted research rather than simple observation. It’s not to be confused with cyberstalking, which uses social media to threaten or harass a target, or stalking in which the target is aware and becomes fearful due to unwanted attention and harassment. An awareness that others can stalk you online is a largely accepted part of modern dating. On the plus side, it can serve as a safety measure when meeting up with someone from a dating app — you can reverse image search to gauge whether or not your match is a catfish, see if you have friends in common, and, if you know their full name, check police reports — and a litmus test for compatibility.
“It’s very normal to want to know about someone you’re interested in,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, an independent research group in Southern California, tells Mashable. “You want a sense of security and [to know] whether or not this relationship has any potential. All of that is perfectly normal. Employers do it, college admissions people do it. The internet is how you do a background check on someone.”
Kate thinks her stalking makes her a better conversationalist. “It makes me good at asking questions when I do go out with someone, even though it’s crazy that I know you did x, y, and z when you were 17 years old from [a] Google search.”
According to Rutledge, using online stalking to further a relationship, as Kate uses it, tends to be healthy because you’re invested in building a real relationship with a person. You start running into problems when your research causes you to spend unhealthy amounts of time online, engage in social comparison, and mold yourself to fit what you think that person would be interested in based on their social media.
“Feeling like you have to craft your social representative to fit theirs and fit something that person would like is a huge time suck. The most damaging part is that you are now giving away your power. You allow your self-worth and identity to be whatever you find on the outside,” said Rutledge.
If you’re not translating this stalking into a relationship with the person you’re interested in, you can be engaging in something akin to a parasocial relationship. “Even though you have met someone or you’re aware of them, you actually don’t have a real/reciprocal relationship. You’re using this media information to create one just as you would in a parasocial relationship,” explains Rutledge.
Kate doesn’t create parasocial relationships with her love interests, but she still feels “stressed out holding all this information about them in, while waiting for them to bring it up in conversation.”
Rutledge cautioned that online stalking can quickly become unhealthy and harmful. She likened it to doomscrolling. “When it starts to preoccupy your thinking and you become too invested in this person that you’re stalking, but you’re not getting any new information, you start to expend an unhealthy amount of energy in a virtual space,” explained Rutledge.
Emilie, a 25-year-old in Brooklyn, New York, experienced going too far down the rabbit hole. “One time I was into this dude, and I was checking [his social media] too often. I looked at his tagged photos on Instagram and Spotify playlist updates. I thought the songs would tell me how he was feeling. I found his Twitter. When [I] started going through multiple social media platforms of his, then I was like, ‘Oh, I am being quite obsessive.'”
Lala, a dating educator who posts on Instagram under the handle @lalalaletmeexplain to her 245,000 followers and hosts the dating podcast It’s Not You, It’s Them…But It Might Be You, attributes this behavior to limerence. Coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book Love and Limerence, limerence is basically a crush on steroids.
The danger of limerence
Tennov wrote that limerence, a mental activity that occurs spontaneously, is characterized by intrusive, obsessive, and persistent thinking about your “limerence object.” Lala explains limerence might result in checking your crush’s social media every couple of hours.
A limerent person creates fantasies based on all the information they’ve gathered. “The imagination is incredibly powerful, so when we visualize things, we actually physically experience them,” says Rutledge. “There’s neurotransmitters that are all firing, making it a yummy experience that keeps you coming back. But it isn’t giving you skills to translate it to a real-life relationship.”
“Another thing about limerence is that you put them on a pedestal. You don’t see any of their flaws and you try to make yourself like them,” says Lala.
Lily engages in online stalking the most when she and her on-again-off-again boyfriend are going through a period of not talking. “I check his Snap location and Snap score. His Snap score and active status when he hasn’t responded to me are most crippling. I feel horrible when I am on Snapchat,” says Lily. This, too, is consistent with limerence. Tennov wrote, “Limerence endures as long as the conditions that sustain both hope and uncertainty.”
“When you recognize that it’s limerence, you can do something about it,” says Lala. “If you’re about to check their WhatsApp status for the 10th time that day, you can say to yourself, stop. This is limerence, you don’t need to do this. There is no new information.” Even if there is new information, if you feel it’s hurting you or you’re missing out on your own life to check someone else’s social media, it would be good to stop.
One way to set online boundaries with yourself is to change your WhatsApp settings, so that your WhatsApp status, whether that’s online or last seen, no longer appears.
Rutledge echoed the importance of self-awareness about how you’re feeling and why you do certain behaviors. “You have to say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? And is this going to actually help or hurt what it is I’m trying to get done?’,” she explains. “Once you know what your goal is, it’s much easier to then judge whether or not any given behavior is going to help or hurt. But that means you have to figure out what it is you want, and it means you have to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Both Lala and Rutledge note that people with an anxious attachment style or vulnerable to abandonment may find these behaviors more difficult to disengage from.
*Name is a pseudonym to protect privacy.
Sex & Relationships