Break the Internet

‘You get a thrill from it’: Meet the digital voyeurs using burner accounts to stalk their exes

Notice a mysterious anonymous account always watching your Instagram stories? It may be someone you’ve known for years, or even dated. Ellie Muir meets the people who’ve turned snooping on people they know into an essential part of life

Sunday 05 March 2023 06:30 GMT
‘You can find out so much from someone’s social media account, so stalking them with a burner is like having a little insight’
‘You can find out so much from someone’s social media account, so stalking them with a burner is like having a little insight’ (iStock)

Katie* was in the early stages of dating a guy when he went on holiday to Mexico. After she viewed some suspicious Stories on his Instagram account, the 22-year-old had a hunch that he’d jetted abroad with someone else. She needed evidence. So she logged into Instagram using her burner account – otherwise known as an anonymous account created with the sole intention of leaving no trace of the actual person using it. Watching her beau’s stories under an alias, Katie scrolled and stalked until she uncovered the identity of his “baecation” companion. “I was right, of course,” she boasts.

When it comes to incognito social media accounts, you probably know the type. They have a blank profile picture. Their username is either filled with numbers or a bit too common-sounding to be real. Their profile is set to “private”. You’ve likely come across one of these kinds of accounts, assumed they’re a bot and brushed them off. Sometimes, though… they could be someone you’ve already met.

Katie says that she uses her burner account to remain anonymous in her detective efforts, as opposed to her public-facing profile that displays her real name. Who wants to reveal themselves as a social media sleuth, anyway?

Most of Katie’s friends have burner accounts. And according to the five twentysomethings I speak to for this article, most of their friends do, too. While Instagram doesn’t publish statistics on how many accounts are owned per user, the app allows us to have five accounts per device. But nothing’s stopping you from creating more on another device. It means there are no limits to how many identities a person could create. Twitter, meanwhile, allows a user to add and manage up to five accounts. Facebook’s policy is similar.

I grant you, creating a burner account to spy on someone sounds a bit obsessive, if not bordering on the behaviour of Netflix’s fictional, black-cap-wearing serial killer character Joe Goldberg in You. As The Independent lifestyle desk’s resident Gen Z-er, though, I’m not ready to brand my generation as “obsessive stalkers” just yet. We’re still working through the social media addiction handed to us at birth. We grew up on Facebook, keeping tabs on each other’s lives and hyper-documenting our own. We’ve become accustomed to surveilling our peers online and being nosey. But it goes without saying that if you’re armed with a phone, this kind of snooping can get out of control.

Alice*, 24, uses her burner account to conduct “routine checks” on a guy she dated on and off last year. She looks at his and his friends’ stories each day to keep track of what he’s doing. She tells me she chose a fake date of birth when she created the account and uses a masculine name to throw people off the scent. The perfect cover. And, at the risk of looking fishy in any way, she decided to follow only football-themed accounts on her burner. “Whenever I go on the account, it’s just pictures of footballers and them scoring goals,” she laughs. “That’s so not me.” Alice sees the funny side to her behaviour, which she’s happy to talk to me about, but she takes comfort in the fact that most of her friends also do what she does. “Both of my flatmates have burner accounts,” she tells me, explaining that it was one of her friends – who uses her burner to stalk her ex – who encouraged her to create the faceless account in the first place.

I should probably just delete the burner account because it gives me more issues. I don’t feel content after I’ve scrolled through it

“We all go through phases of having an obsession or some weird kind of fixation on certain people,” Alice says, trying to justify it to me. “Sometimes I’m curious [about] what someone’s posted, but don’t want them to know it was me watching. You can find out so much from someone’s social media account, so stalking them with a burner is like having a little insight.”

Alice does have some reservations about her ability to let go of the habit, though, especially when she stumbles across an unwelcome piece of information in her investigative mission. Sometimes she sees a hint that her ex is seeing someone new, or thriving in life without her. “I should probably just delete the burner account because it gives me more issues,” she admits. “I don’t feel content after I’ve scrolled through it.” She admits it hurts when she finds evidence of a new beau. She’s tried to delete her burner a number of times, but can’t remember the password to enter before deactivating the account. So, instead, she checks it each day.

Psychotherapist Anna Jackson has a clientele base of predominantly 18 to 30-year-olds and has encountered patients who confess to creating burner accounts to monitor their exes. She says it’s entirely normal to “check up” on an ex out of curiosity using social media. “It’s human nature,” she explains, likening it to doing something a bit wrong but not criminal, like walking on grass despite seeing a sign asking you not to. “It’s the sort of thing you can get a thrill from.”

Jackson warns, though, that someone creating a burner account to stalk an ex is operating from “an unhealthy place”. She says that it’s a sign a person is still attached to an old relationship, and that it only prolongs the difficulty in getting over someone. “You’re not allowing yourself space to process those really deep emotions, like sorrow or hurt.”

Burner accounts aren’t gendered, either. Men use them, too. Michael* calls his a “fake Instagram”, and uses it to post behind-the-scenes content of his life to only a select few of his friends. He documents whatever he wants without limits. He also uses it to go incognito when he’s trying to suss out a given situation. “I use it when something has transpired and I need to check someone’s Story without using my main account,” he says. “I also check to see if someone has blocked me.”

‘Some people do it as a way to gain closure after a breakup, while others are feeding a desire to hold on’ (iStock)

Psychotherapist Lisa Lawless explains to me that what she calls “online surveillance” has become commonplace among young people. “It can be tempting to indulge in some digital voyeurism on an ex-partner,” she explains. “Some people do it as a way to gain closure after a breakup, while others are feeding a desire to hold on.” Lawless says that sometimes someone might be searching for answers as to what went wrong in a relationship. But, echoing Jackson, she doesn’t think it’s the best way to find closure. She cautions that the behaviour could lead to prolonged feelings of “obsession”, “jealousy” or even “depression”, advising that it’s “far better to [independently] focus on their own healing and growth”.

Research has shown that post-breakup recovery can be hindered by connecting with your ex on social media. It can also increase negative feelings and lead to greater distress over the split, Lawless tells me. “It can inhibit personal growth during the post-breakup period [too].”

Based on my generation’s long-harboured affinity for social media, it seems inevitable – if not justifiable – that it’s come to this. But I’d argue that Gen Z should be afforded some empathy. We’re guinea pigs for an era still figuring out how to navigate online existence. I, at least, take comfort in the fact that Alice, Katie and Michael all seem aware that their behaviour could be perceived as “toxic”. They know they should probably put an end to it sooner rather than later, but who can blame them when social media has given us all the tools to dig, tap and scroll to uncover hard truths? Whether those truths will satisfy you, though, is less certain.

“I don’t think it gives you peace of mind at all,” Alice says. “I think the best way is to just let it go. Don’t dig where you know you’ll find stuff.”

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