Check your phone. Are there any unanswered messages, snaps or instant messages that you ignore? Do you have to answer? Or should you haunt the person who sent them?
Ghosting happens when someone cuts off all online communication with someone else, and without an explanation. Instead, like a ghost, they just disappear. The phenomenon is common on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic – which is forcing more people online – it’s happening now more than ever.
I am a professor of psychology studying the role of technology use in interpersonal relationships and wellness. Given the negative psychological consequences of hindered relationships – especially during the emerging adulthood, ages 18 to 29 – I wanted to understand what leads college students to haunt others, and whether ghost images have any impact on mental health.
To address these questions, my research team recruited 76 college students through social media and pamphlets on campus. The sample is 70% female. Study participants entered for one of 20 focus groups, ranging in size from two to five students. Group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each. Participants provided answers to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experiences. Here’s what we found.
Some students admitted that they were haunted because they did not have the necessary communication skills to have an open and honest conversation – whether that conversation took place face-to-face or by text or email.
From a 19-year-old woman: “I’m not good at communicating with people in person, so I certainly can not do that by typing or anything like that.”
From a 22-year-old: “I do not have the confidence to tell them. Or I think it could be due to social anxiety. “
In some cases, participants chose to haunt if they thought that meeting the person would evoke emotional or sexual feelings that they were not ready to pursue: “People are afraid that something will become too much… the fact that the relationship somehow at the next level. ”
Some struggled due to safety issues. Forty-five percent struggled to remove themselves from a “toxic”, “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation. A 19-year-old woman put it this way: “It is very easy to just talk to total strangers. [ghosting is] like a form of protection when a whimsical guy asks you to send naked and stuff like that. ”
One of the least reported yet perhaps most interesting reasons to haunt someone: protecting that person’s feelings. It is better to be haunted, the thought goes, than to cause the hurtful feelings that accompany open rejection. An 18-year-old woman said haunting is “a bit more polite way of rejecting someone than saying outright ‘I do not want to talk to you’.”
That said, recent data suggests that American adults generally view breaking up through email, text or social media as unacceptable, and prefer a person-to-person conversation.
And then there is the ghost of sex.
In the context of hookup culture, there is an understanding that if the ghost got what they were looking for – often, it’s sex – then that’s it, they no longer need to talk to that person. After all, more talking can be interpreted as wanting something more emotionally intimate.
According to one 19-year-old woman: “I think it’s rare that there’s an open conversation about how you really feel [about] what you want out of a situation. … I think the connection culture is really toxic to promote honest communication. ”
But the most common reason to haunt: a lack of interest in pursuing a relationship with that person. Do you remember the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You”? As one participant put it, “Sometimes the conversation just gets boring.”
Attending college represents a critical turning point for the establishment and maintenance of relationships outside one’s family and hometown. For some emerging adults, romantic separation, emotional loneliness, social exclusion, and isolation can have potentially devastating psychological implications.
Our research supports the idea that ghost images can have negative consequences for mental health. In the short term, many of those haunted felt overwhelming rejection and confusion. They reported feelings of low self-esteem and self-esteem. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity – not knowing why communication suddenly stopped. Sometimes an element of paranoia emerges when the ghost man tries to make sense of the situation.
Our long-term study found that many of those ghostly feelings of mistrust were reported to develop over time. Some bring this mistrust to future relationships. Along with that, the rejection, self-blame, and the potential to sabotage those relationships can come to internalize.
However, just over half of the participants in our study said that it provides opportunities for reflection and resilience.
“It can be partly positive for the ghost, because they can realize some of the shortcomings they have, and they can change it,” an 18-year-old woman said.
As for the ghost, there were a series of psychological consequences. About half in the focus groups that haunted experienced feelings of remorse or guilt; the rest felt no emotion at all. This finding is not entirely surprising, since individuals who initiate divorces generally report less distress than the recipients.
Also emerging from our discussions: The feeling that ghosts may be hindered in their personal growth. From a 20-year-old man: “It can [become] a habit. And it’s becoming part of your behavior and that’s how you think you should end a relationship with someone. … I feel that many people are series ghosts, as if that is the only way they know how to deal with people. ”
Reasons for haunting for fear of intimacy represent a particularly intriguing path for future research. Until that work is done, universities can help by providing more opportunities for students to boost self-confidence and sharpen their communication skills.
This includes more courses that cover these challenges. I am reminded of a psychology class I took as an undergraduate student at Trent University, which introduced me to the work of social psychologist Daniel Perlman, who offered courses on loneliness and intimate relationships. Outside the classroom, coordinators of college-residential living seminars and workshops can design students to learn practical skills in resolving relationship conflicts.
Meanwhile, students can subscribe to a number of relationship blogs that provide readers with research-based answers. Just know that help is out there – even after a ghost, you are not alone.