Story Stalking: The Instagram and Snapchat Trend Ruining Your Love Life
It’s just after 9pm in the Nolita neighborhood of New York City, and 27-year-old Abby* has four girlfriends over to her pristine West Elm-esque studio apartment. While there’s plenty of chatter, five iPhones command the majority of the girls’ attention. Between sips of Chardonnay, each girl switches between her texts, Snapchat, and Instagram, occasionally stopping to pose for a selfie or “snap” an artfully arranged photo of wine glasses.
“I’m checking to see if Tyler* is looking,” says Lauren, who works in marketing. “We used to date,” she explains, before reconsidering. “Well, kind of. We were seeing each other, but it was never official. Now he just watches my Instagram stories and Snapchats and never says anything.”
“Story Stalking” is the “phenomenon of ex-partners, ex-hook-ups, or undefined romantic interests watching your Snapchat or Instagram story obsessively, but failing to send a text message or make a phone call to go out in real life.”
For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of Instagram and Snapchat stories, both platforms allow the account owner to view who watched their “story.” Stories, a collection of photos and videos, live for 24 hours on the account owner’s feed and typically feature real-time updates of daily life.
Story stalking is the latest form of social media mental manipulation, with stalkees reporting that it “prevents them from moving on to another love interest,” and “confused as to the motivations of the stalker.”
In a July 2017 survey, Hinge found that 57 percent of users 24-35 report having story stalked someone else, and 52 percent report having been story stalked. Nearly all respondents reported negative feelings associated with the practice, which runs rampant amongst singles.
“I am currently being story stalked by two guys,” said Rachel*, a 26-year-old Hinge member in Boston. “One of the guys still watches every one of my Snapchat and Instagram stories, and he’s normally one of the first ten people to do so.”
Rachel went on to explain how being story stalked affected her own social media behavior — she began posting obsessively and for the sole purpose of “catching” the stalker in action, something over a third of survey respondents reported doing.
“When [the relationship] first ended I became obsessed with posting stories and checking until his name appeared. In a way, seeing his name both comforted and frustrated me. On the one hand, I liked that he was keeping up with what I was doing, because it validated the relationship and showed he cared enough to see what I was up to. On the other hand, it was frustrating, knowing he wasn’t saying anything. Either love me or leave me. He won’t do either.”
“Story stalking is an almost pathological behavior,” explains psychotherapist Tara Fields, author of the bestselling book The Love Fix. “If you were the dumpee and you’re allowing yourself to be story stalked, you are prolonging the inevitable, which is giving yourself the chance to recover and move on. If you’re the dumper doing the stalking, you’re preventing your ex from accepting the finality of the breakup. The loving thing in either case is for both people to go ‘no contact.’”
Story stalkees are not the only ones with a ritualistic set of behaviors — the stalkers themselves reported a myriad of “techniques” to aid in their sleuth-like behavior, including the following, which involves carefully monitoring the 24-hour “lifespan” of the Instagram or Snapchat story.
“I had a relationship that ended at the beginning of April. He ended it for another girl. I story stalk him on Instagram because I’m curious about when and if he’s with her. But here’s the thing — I don’t want him to know I’m story stalking him, so I always try to note the time he posted and look right before they disappear. That way he won’t see my name.”
David*, 29, from St. Louis, reported being in the midst of a “dual-story stalk situation.”
“I have an ex-hookup, this girl I used to date, and I always watch her Snapchats and check to see if she watches mine. Sometimes I post a Snapchat just to see if she’ll watch it. It’s sad, but her watching my Story gave me hope that she was into me.”
Fields countered this behavior with a warning.
“Posting an Instagram or Snapchat Story solely to get the attention of an ex is coming from a belief that we can control someone else’s behavior,” she said. “That’s the biggest sandtrap you can fall into. If you want an authentic, fulfilling relationship, you need someone who is emotionally available, who wants you enough to reach out in an authentic way, through a phone call or a text. ‘Hope’ based on social media behavior is not a good foundation for a healthy relationship.”
That “hope” for a reconciliation is not unfounded. 41 percent of survey respondents said their “primary reason” for story stalking was that they “missed the person and wanted to get back together,” and were story stalking to “test the waters” or “send a signal.”
“I probably care more than I’m willing to admit,” said Peter*, 27, in New York City. He regularly checks his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram Story, an act he said makes him feel “lonely, sad, or wishing [he] hadn’t.”
“It’s almost like a drug,” he said. “A lot of times, I see things I don’t want to see. But I can’t stop, and I don’t want to be the one to make the first move in reaching out.”
Jill*, 26, in Washington DC, echoed similar sentiments.
“I definitely story stalk, and it never makes me feel good — it makes me feel lonely. I muted my ex-boyfriend’s story per my therapist’s recommendation. It has helped not to have the constant reminder of his existence, and to stop having false hopes that we’ll get back together.”
In the graveyard of dead relationships, Instagram and Snapchat Stories are like ghosts: constant reminders of what once was, popping up at all hours as unwelcome reminders of the past. The “real time” nature of the feature gives the viewer a false feeling of being involved in the stalkee’s life in an intimate way, when reality is, they’re merely a stranger looking in at a life through a digital window.
And what happens when the stalkee does finally reach out? More often than not, the result is just as disappointing.
“My ex, Tommy, always watches my Instagram stories,” said Ellen*, a 28-year-old physical therapist in Los Angeles. “Out of the blue one day, after six months of doing this, he sent me a text. Keep in mind, he lives with his current girlfriend.”
Ellen provided the texts to Hinge on the condition of anonymity. As expected, they’re just as hollow as his story stalking behaviors.
“Normally I’d go with it and honestly kind of like the attention. Now I’m like, ‘F off’ unless you’re going to act on it.”
So, what’s a stalkee to do?
“We should all strive for authentic intimacy in our relationships,” said Fields. “That means being able to communicate honestly and openly, by picking up the phone or sending a text. [Social media] is the downfall of intimate modern relationships. These days, calling someone is considered rude, like you might be bothering the person. Now, with story stalking, even sending a text has become too much effort.”
“The best way to prevent this behavior is to enter a relationship with someone who does not exhibit red flags in the first place. People who want authentic relationships will not engage in these types of behaviors. They’ll be upfront about their intentions and communicate clearly.”
*Names have been changed