He broke your heart. She dumped you and ran. You're miserable—and you never want to see your ex again.
Except there he is, looking good in that new profile picture splashed all over your news feed. And hey, who's that guy leaving emoticons on her wall? There's no doubt Facebook has complicated modern-day breakups: Out of sight, out of mind? Not so much, these days. And no one's clicking "like" on that.
A study published in September in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that stalking an ex on Facebook—or frequently checking his or her profile and friends list—is linked with "greater current distress over the breakup, more negative feelings, more sexual desire, more longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth." Indeed, experts say Facebook can prolong post-breakup pain, while delaying emotional recovery.
"When a breakup is still raw and painful, being exposed to your ex-partner through Facebook is like pouring salt on a wound," says study author Tara Marshall, a psychologist at Brunel University in England. "Seeing photos, reading his or her updates, and finding out that he's involved in a new relationship may intensify distress. Distance—online and offline—allows emotions to cool enough to develop a meaningful narrative about what went wrong in the relationship, which facilitates recovery and growth."
Marshall surveyed more than 450 Facebook users, who responded to questions like: How often do you look at your ex's profile? How often do you look at his list of Facebook friends? They were also asked how sad they were when they thought about the breakup, whether they still had sexual feelings for their ex, and how much life change they'd experienced since splitting. The verdict: Continuing to keep tabs on an ex via Facebook was linked with longer-lasting heartache.
It's worth noting that the findings are correlational, and don't prove that Facebook stalking is bad for you. "It's the chicken or the egg issue," says Jennifer Harman, an assistant professor of applied social psychology at Colorado State University. "People who are doing this on Facebook are experiencing greater distress. But is that because of the stalking, or are they stalking because they're more distressed in the first place? It's hard to know."
Other studies, too, have explored the Facebook effect on breakups. In July, researchers from the University of Western Ontario reported that 88 percent of folks used Facebook to monitor their ex, while 75 percent checked out their ex's new (or suspected) partner. "You can't always tell if the other person is a romantic partner or not," says Anabel Quan-Haase, an associate professor of information and media studies who supervised the research. "It's confrontation without information, and what you're seeing may be out of context. People get really stressed out about that underlying surveillance."
Quan-Haase's research also found that 70 percent of respondents used a mutual friend's profile to access information on an ex, while 52 percent admitted to jealousy over an ex's photos, and 31 percent said they posted pictures in an attempt to make their ex jealous. Other common behaviors: Re-reading or overanalyzing old messages or wall posts (64.2 percent), deleting photos from happier times (50.5 percent), and posting a quote or song lyrics about the breakup (33.6 percent).
"People who are anxious, have low self-esteem, or are very concerned about rejection may engage in these behaviors more often," Harman says. "It's also more likely when the cause of the breakup is ambiguous or uncertain, and there's not a lot of trust. Breakups are never easy, but when the cause is unclear, we might turn to Facebook to figure out how and why it happened." When the end of the relationship was straightforward, and both partners accepted it, social networking sites tend to be less problematic, and even a moot point.