We often joke with our friends about “stalking” their profiles, which usually involves nothing more than swiping through their photos and seeing what they’re up to. Pretty much everyone on social media does this to some extent and it is usually harmless. However, actual cyberstalking is a serious crime that can have terrible outcomes for its targets.
So, what constitutes “stalking” and at what point is the line crossed from normal social media browsing to a dangerous activity? Beyond that, what do stalkers want from their victims and why do people stalk? The psychology of a stalker is complex and their motivation can be extremely diverse.
Some people may feel that social media stalking is less dangerous or severe than stalking in real life, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Additionally, a person who cyberstalks may have underlying mental illnesses that are driving their behaviors.
Understanding Social Media Stalking Behavior
People social media stalk for a variety of reasons and the issue is widespread. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in five Americans have experienced online harassment, including cyberstalking.
Social media stalking can take many forms. Often, cyberstalking starts simple—a few messages, some name-calling, or even leaving false reviews for a business. Another common initial interaction is going back and “liking” all of an individual’s old posts. Other forms might involve someone sending another person an excessive number of messages, sometimes including inappropriate content in those messages.
In many cases, a person will pretend to be another individual to perform their stalking. This is known as “catfishing” and may be done to gain information or money, build a relationship, or just cause harm.
The stalking may extend to real life, involving some level of GPS tracking or using location tags to find the victim in person.
Though many people feel that cyberstalking is less threatening or real than offline stalking, it can have serious repercussions. Studies not only show that the effects mimic those of purely offline stalking but also that victims of online stalking and harassment experience major mental health impacts. These ranged from anxiety and depression to panic attacks and even suicidal thoughts.
Factors Contributing to Social Media Stalking
It’s important to recognize that there is no such thing as a “typical stalker.” Stalking is a behavior with links to many different disorders. One of the more key discoveries concerning the psychology of stalking is that it’s often an obsessive behavior. This means that the stalking stems from an uncontrollable urge that persists and recurs.
These obsessions may stem from delusions, such as those from psychological disorders. A common thread among stalkers is that they feel that their victims are actually in love with them. Some people feel obsessions about reclaiming lost relationships. Others might become obsessed with someone’s appearance, involving feelings of jealousy.
Social media presents unique opportunities for stalking. For many, the idea of anonymity triggers behaviors that they would normally avoid if their names or photos were attached to their actions. In polls, Americans overwhelmingly feel that anonymity enables people to act more cruelly or harass one another. This is generally the case with trolls or aggressive stalking where the intent is to cause harm or offense.
However, a great number of stalkers do not even realize that their actions are harming people. Through social media, it’s common for people to form parasocial bonds with other individuals that they don’t actually know. Those who feel lonely could “like” a bunch of old photos of someone they wish to know better—or that they feel they already know. While the victim may feel uneasy by the sudden influx, the culprit could simply be trying to make a connection. However, despite the reasoning being more logical, this is still a form of stalking and can have the same severe consequences.
The Link Between Obsessive Behavior and Mental Health
Obsessive behaviors come from persistent, repeated, and unwanted thoughts or urges. Most people associate these behaviors with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, but they have links to many different mental health issues. For example, anxiety and depression may both feed into and result from obsessive thinking.
Studies show that both obsessive behaviors and stalking are more common among people with substance use disorder.
Body dysmorphic disorder also has links to obsessive behavior as the person becomes overly focused on their weight or how they look. This could lead to them stalking people they idolize, feel jealous of, or that they wish to emulate.
Sexual obsessions are common and could be triggers for cyberstalking. These obsessions involve intrusive thoughts about sexual experiences with strangers, potentially including non-consensual actions and assault.
Some studies have shown that the majority of cyberstalkers exhibited traits consistent with personality disorders. These conditions affect how a person thinks and behaves, meaning they do not realize their actions are atypical. Group B and C disorders were the most common, with borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders standing above the others.
Seeking Help and Support for Managing Obsessive Tendencies
Obsessive behaviors, including cyberstalking, and their respective mental health conditions are not moral failings, but diagnosable and manageable issues. However, it can be difficult to seek help. Often, people with these obsessions don’t realize the thoughts are atypical. Plus, the obsessions or the resulting behaviors can be embarrassing, making seeking help unappealing.
However, these issues are far more common than most people realize. Mental health experts have seen people with obsessive behaviors before you and will certainly see others after you. You are not alone.
The single best way to work out the source of obsessive behaviors is to work with a mental health professional that you can trust. By evaluating your symptoms, they can provide you with a diagnosis and recommend treatments if you need them.
Though they are difficult to deal with on your own, obsessive tendencies are manageable—especially if you treat the condition that’s responsible for them. The exact treatment will vary depending on your needs, behaviors, and the underlying problem.
Medications can help you control obsessive behaviors. Antidepressants are typically the first drugs that doctors will prescribe, targeting serotonin to help limit the obsessions. However, it can take several months for symptoms to improve and some cases may require higher doses.
Psychotherapies are also extremely common and effective options for managing obsessive behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy that helps you recognize harmful thought patterns and how to control them. By combating the thinking behind the obsessions, it’s possible to limit behaviors like social media stalking. Many people consider cognitive behavioral therapy to be the “gold standard” of talk therapies.
Alternatively, if a professional can identify a specific trigger behind your obsessions, they may try exposure therapy. This takes place in a safe room where your counselor will introduce situations or objects to you in a controlled manner. As you learn how to manage these triggers, you also learn how to limit obsessions and the resulting behaviors.
Ultimately, seeking out help for any mental health issue is difficult. Whether you are the victim of stalking or the one performing the stalking, our experts are here to assist. Simply reach out today and a mental health professional will guide you through how we can help you.