How ‘ghosting’ is linked to mental health


Look at your phone. Are there unanswered texts, snaps or direct messages that you ignore? Should I answer? Or should you “ghost” the person who sent them?

Ghosting occurs when someone cuts off all online communication with someone else without explanation. Instead, like a ghost, they just disappear. The phenomenon is common on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation caused by the pandemic – forcing more people to congregate online – it happens now more than ever.

I am a psychology teacher who investigates the role of technology use in interpersonal relationships and well-being. Given the negative psychological consequences of thwarted relationships — especially in the first years of adulthood18 to 29 — I wanted to understand what drives students to ghost others, and whether ghosts have any perceived effects on mental health.

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To answer these questions, my research team recruited 76 students through social media and flyers on campus, 70% women. Study participants signed up for one of 20 focus groups consisting of two to five students. The group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each. Participants provided answers to questions asking them to reflect on their ghost experiences. Here’s what we found.

Some students admitted they were ghosted because they lacked the communication skills needed to have an open and honest conversation – whether that conversation was face-to-face, text or email.

From a 19-year-old woman: “I’m not good at communicating with people in person, so I definitely can’t do it by typing or anything like that.”

From a 22-year-old: “I don’t have the confidence to tell them that. Or I guess it could be due to social anxiety.

In some cases, participants chose to ghost if they thought meeting the person would elicit emotional or sexual feelings that they weren’t ready to pursue: “People are afraid of something becoming too… .the fact that the relationship somehow moves to the next level.”

Some have disappeared for security reasons. Forty-five percent phantom to remove themselves from a “toxic”, “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation. A 19-year-old woman put it this way: “It’s very easy to just chat with total strangers, so [ghosting is] as a form of protection when a creepy guy asks you to send nudes and stuff like that.

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One of the least reported, but perhaps most interesting, reasons for ghosting someone: to protect that person’s feelings. Better to be a ghost, it is thought, than to cause the hurt feelings that come with overt rejection. An 18-year-old woman said ghosting was “a little more polite way to dismiss someone than to say straight up, ‘I don’t want to argue with you.’ ”

That said, recent data suggest that American adults generally view breaking up via email, text, or social media as unacceptable and prefer an in-person breakup conversation.

And then there are the ghosts after sex.

In the context of hookup culture, it’s understood that if the ghost got what they were looking for – often it’s sex – then that’s it, they don’t need to talk to that person anymore. After all, more talk could be interpreted as wanting something more emotionally intimate.

According to a 19-year-old woman: “I think it’s rare that there’s an open conversation about how you really feel. [about] what you expect from a situation. … I think the hookup culture is really toxic for fostering honest communication.

But the most common reason for ghosting: a lack of interest in pursuing a relationship with that person. Remember the movie”He’s just not very interested”? As one participant said, “Sometimes the conversation just gets boring. »

College attendance represents a critical turning point to establish and maintain relationships beyond his family and his native neighborhood. For some emerging adults, relationship breakups, emotional loneliness, social exclusion and isolation may have potentially devastating psychological implications.

Our research supports the idea that ghosting can have negative consequences for mental health. In the short term, many of these ghosts felt overwhelming rejection and confusion. They reported feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth. Part of the problem is lack of clarity – not knowing why communication has suddenly stopped. Sometimes an element of paranoia ensues as the ghost tries to make sense of the situation.

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Over the long term, our study found that many of these ghosts reported feelings of distrust that developed over time. Some bring this distrust to future relationships. With this can come internalized rejection, self-blame, and the potential to sabotage those later relationships.

But just over half of the participants in our study said ghosting provided opportunities for reflection and resilience.

“It can be partly positive for the ghost because he can see some of his shortcomings and he can fix them,” said an 18-year-old woman.

As for the ghost, there was a whole range of psychological consequences. About half of focus group participants who had ghosts experienced feelings of remorse or guilt; the others felt no emotion. This result is not surprising, given that people who initiate breakups generally report less distress than the recipients.

Also emerging from our discussions: The feeling that ghosts can be slowed down in their personal growth. From a 20-year-old man: “It can [become] a habit. And that becomes part of your behavior, and that’s how you think you should end a relationship with someone. … I feel like a lot of people are serial ghosts, like that’s the only way they can deal with people.

The reasons for the fear of intimacy represent a particularly intriguing avenue for future research. Until this work is done, universities could help by offering more opportunities for students to build their confidence and sharpen their communication skills.

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This includes more courses that cover these challenges. I remember a psychology course I did undergraduate studies at Trent University which introduced me to the work of a social psychologist Daniel Perlman, who gave classes on loneliness and intimate relationships. Outside of the classroom, college residential life coordinators could design seminars and workshops that teach students practical skills on resolving relationship conflict.

In the meantime, students can subscribe to relationship blogs that provide readers with research-based answers. Just know that help is there. Even after ghosting, you are not alone.

Royette T. Dubar is a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University.

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