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A hand is holding a cell phone. Giant eyeballs surround the phone, all focusing on a woman’s instagram post. Simone Noronha for Vox

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Why do we keep tabs on people we can’t stand?

How to stop checking on your ex — and everyone else you love to hate — on social media.

Angel Martinez is a freelance journalist covering the internet, identity, and their intersections. Her work has been featured in Vice, i-D, Teen Vogue, Insider, and Kontinentalist.

In the early days of the internet, a hater was the worst thing you could be. Spite and sarcasm had no place in a sea of people who watched videos of babies laughing or tended to their virtual farms. Thankfully, as time passed, we as a society have learned to stop lying to ourselves. No one is ever truly out of sight and out of mind today, which is why we shamelessly send bad posts of people we don’t like to our friends or have entire group chats dedicated to gathering receipts. Over 70,000 people have uploaded their confessions on TikTok to the tune of the catchy “Hater’s Anthem” because, as the song itself says, we love the way it feels to be a hater.

You, too, might find yourself looking at the social media feeds of people you don’t like and getting joy out of that experience. It’s a common habit, an often harmless way to let off some steam, but continually hate-stalking others’ accounts can keep us trapped in a cycle of unproductive negativity.

Since prehistoric times, humans have thrived on seeking out and obtaining information about the world around us, especially as it pertains to other people. It doesn’t matter whether we love or hate them; these emotions activate some of the same circuits in the brain and consequently release the same rush of rewarding feelings. Often, we’re drawn to dislike those who we feel violate social norms — like that annoying microinfluencer who overshares every single detail of their deep-seated trauma — because we’re intrigued by why and how they’re able to do what they do. These reasons could be even more complicated and varied if we personally know those we keep tabs on.

Of course, this kind of social media lurking is completely different from actual behaviors of criminal stalking and acts of hate. There’s a serious distinction between quietly sending a friend someone’s weird Instagram story and actual bullying and harassment, which should never be condoned. But no matter how harmless this common version of social media stalking could seem at the onset, it can still be detrimental. When we’re feeling particularly down in the dumps, it’s hard to see that what we’re looking at is just a deluge of highly curated information that may not serve our better interests to engage with. The feeling of social comparison that follows forces us to keep up with appearances and overcompensate for what we lack.

Despite these real effects, it can be hard to admit that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, mostly because of how easy it is to hide. “Think about other behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, or compulsive shopping. There are often witnesses to this or a trail of evidence, which makes us feel more accountable to other people,” explained Georgina Sturmer, an integrative counselor who has worked with women struggling with addiction. “[Hate-stalking] can be done in private, without fear of being caught or questioned, making it much easier for us to go down a rabbit hole.”

As a result, we tend to go down these spirals alone and leave social media stalking sessions feeling ashamed or embarrassed, wondering how we got so invested in others’ digital lives in the first place. It’s a complicated behavior that brings up a lot of conflicting emotions. With that in mind, the names of some of the people interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identities.

Recognize the behavior and understand what’s driving it

Like any other addictive behavior, hate-stalking can be a habit we develop to address an unmet need. “It’s easy to go online in an attempt to tackle underlying feelings of loneliness or boredom. Once we’re there, social media contains built-in features that keep us on the hook,” Sturmer said.

When we acknowledge that our social media lurking can hinder our happiness, it’s important to get to the root of this behavior. Take Annie, who still keeps tabs on the former bullies who made her high school life a living hell. “I’ve kept up with their lives for so long to see if they’ve peaked in high school,” the 29-year-old creative told me in an interview. “Sadly, hate-stalking has only made me more self-conscious, especially when I see a former bully thriving. I tend to talk to myself from a place of shame whenever I don’t achieve something like them.”

Sometimes, there can also be an element of seeking karmic justice, of wanting to know whether someone is suffering as punishment for hurting us in the past. Take Rica’s former coworker, who Rica said was so threatened by her that she tried to derail her career. “[This person] moved to another company, and I started hate-stalking to see if she would make something of herself after leaving,” the 42-year-old salesperson shared. “I just didn’t want to believe that she could ruin my career and not face any consequences. I’d like to think that the universe is fair.”

Coming to terms with our reasons for lurking will require asking and answering some pretty uncomfortable questions. “Examples of this could include: What are you seeking in this encounter? Are you going [to this person’s account] to torture yourself? Is this a manifestation of feelings of loneliness or anger or envy? Or are we curious what other people are doing without us?” said Jaimie Krems, a social psychologist and professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Consider, too, the role social media may have previously played in your relationship with this person: Maybe you were “liking” and commenting on their posts, or your catch-up lunches or birthday parties were featured on their feeds a lot. These interactions may have brought the distinct kind of validation that serves as online currency, which might be a reason why we keep coming back to some people’s accounts.

Limit your exposure

At the end of any relationship, we’re often told to unfollow or even block the other person on all social media platforms. But for those who find it hard to cut them off immediately and completely, detaching from a stalkee and their daily activity is nonetheless necessary.

Lily, a 22-year-old writer, admitted that checking up on her ex-boyfriend and his new partner two years after the breakup just adds salt to her emotional wounds. “Even if the intention behind it was to feel better about myself, it would always make me feel like shit because, at the end of the day, I used to be that girl beside him, making plans of growing old together,” she said. Seeing anniversary and milestone posts on her feed from her ex is particularly difficult for her: “It would remind me of how things were like when the breakup was still fresh: crying nonstop, screaming my lungs out in pain, and feeling all this anger and frustration and grief.”

It’s important to track moments when you feel the need to social stalk and assess what factors those instances may have in common. Were you in a specific place that reminded you of them, hanging out with certain people, or doing a particular activity? Maybe this could also be indicative of a larger personal issue we have, like in Annie’s case. “Now, I’m trying to see if my hate-stalking is a manifestation of my demand avoidance: if I’m doing this just to ignore what I know I should be doing to make my life better,” she said.

Put a plan in motion

If we’re not careful, social media stalking can go from a harmless little treat to a negative reflex that bleeds into our daily routines. “Acknowledging the urge as it creeps up on us and giving ourselves a few minutes to pause before acting on it could be helpful,” said Krems. Exercising this self-restraint, even in small increments, can help us think about whether it’s something we really want to do or just a habit our brains and thumbs have grown accustomed to.

Other long-term examples that could help kill this habit include losing ourselves in something else — maybe a hobby, a piece of media, or even another person. “Lately, I’ve found that crocheting and going on TikTok instead helps me,” Lily said. It can also help to open up to someone we trust so we can process what we feel rather than forcing ourselves to seek out information that confirms our destructive beliefs.

In extreme cases, like those that require a total digital detox, we could find ourselves making excuses instead of taking steps to curb our behavior. In this case, Sturmer invites us to examine why this may be the case: “Perhaps you don’t want to put boundaries in place because you say you really need social media for other purposes. Ask yourself if this is really true, and try to seek out ways to get only the information that you need elsewhere.”

Accept that it’s a normal part of life

Contrary to popular belief, keeping tabs on the social media of people you don’t like isn’t always this shameful activity that signals the beginning of a depressive episode or unhealthy obsession; when taken at face value, it’s just another means to acquire new knowledge — and if we find exactly what we’re looking for, it could significantly improve our outlook. “I found out that my former coworker didn’t get into the company she wanted and was forced into retirement,” Rica said. “It’s amusing to see her trying to convince everyone that she’s happy with how her life looks now.”

On other occasions, it can even serve as a means to strengthen or start relationships. “There’s a possibility that shared hate might actually bring us together more than shared love. If we both hate the same person, perhaps we have underlying similarities that could make us great cooperators,” said Krems. “This coalitional hate-stalking can feel good because we’re both discovering information and bonding together, which could have great payoffs for our well-being.”

While this may seem like a reach to some, let’s face it: No matter how much we claim to have moved on, the right mixture of boredom and curiosity could compel us to check up on a certain person. The schadenfreude that can come with that doesn’t mean we’re irredeemable or evil human beings. Our feelings toward the events in our lives, and the people we meet, are valid and varied. As long as our social media check-ins aren’t an obsessive and organized effort to ruin someone else’s life or to hurt ourselves, we don’t need to beat ourselves up when we go down the same ol’ spiral.

“Not liking someone and wishing them ill, should we be doing that? That’s a question that depends on our morality,” Krems said. “But does almost everyone do that? I think the answer is yes.”

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