The Washington Post

‘Ghosting’ hurts. It may have psychologi­cal consequenc­es.

Study focuses on cutting off online communicat­ion


Check your phone. Are there any unanswered texts, snaps or direct messages that you’re ignoring? Should you reply? Or should you “ghost” the person who sent them?

Ghosting happens when someone cuts off all online communicat­ion with someone else without an explanatio­n. Instead, like a ghost, they just vanish. The phenomenon is common on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation brought on by the pandemic — forcing more people together online — it happens now more than ever.

I am a professor of psychology who studies the role of technology use in interperso­nal relationsh­ips and well-being.

Given the negative psychologi­cal consequenc­es of thwarted relationsh­ips — especially in the emerging adulthood years, ages 18 to 29 — I wanted to understand what leads college students to ghost others and if ghosting had any perceived effects on one’s mental health.

To address these questions, my research team recruited 76 college students through social media and on-campus fliers, 70 percent of them female. Study participan­ts signed up 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 responses to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experience­s. Here’s what we found.

The results

Some students admitted they ghosted because they lacked the necessary communicat­ion skills to have an open and honest conversati­on — whether that conversati­on happened face-to-face or via text or email.

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

From a 22-year old: “I do not have the confidence to tell them that. Or I guess it could be because of social anxiety.”

In some instances, participan­ts opted to ghost if they thought meeting with the person would stir up emotional or sexual feelings they were not ready to pursue: “People are afraid of something becoming too much . . . the fact that the relationsh­ip is somehow getting to the next level.”

Some ghosted because of safety concerns. Forty-five percent ghosted to remove themselves from a “toxic,” “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation. A 19-yearold woman put it this way: “It’s very easy to just chat with total strangers so [ghosting is] like a form of protection when a creepy guy is asking you to send nudes and stuff like that.”

One of the least-reported yet perhaps most interestin­g reasons for ghosting someone: protecting that person’s feelings. Better to ghost, the thinking goes, than cause the hurt feelings that come with overt rejection. An 18-yearold woman said ghosting was “a little bit politer way to reject someone than to directly say, ‘I do not want to chat with you.’ ”

That said, recent data suggests that U.S. adults generally perceive breaking up through email, text or social media as unacceptab­le, and prefer an in-person break-up conversati­on.

And then there’s ghosting after sex.

In the context of hookup culture, there’s an understand­ing that if the ghoster got what they were looking for — often, that’s sex — then that’s it, they no longer need to talk to that person. After all, more talk could be interprete­d as wanting something more emotionall­y intimate.

According to one 19-year-old woman: “I think it’s rare for there to be open conversati­on about how you’re truly feeling [about] what you want out of a situation. . . . I think hookup culture is really toxic in fostering honest communicat­ion.”

But the most prevalent reason to ghost: a lack of interest in pursuing a relationsh­ip with that person. Remember the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You”? As one participan­t said: “Sometimes the conversati­on just gets boring.”

The ramificati­ons

Attending college represents a critical turning point for establishi­ng and maintainin­g relationsh­ips beyond one’s family and hometown neighborho­od. For some emerging adults, romantic breakups, emotional loneliness, social exclusion and isolation can have potentiall­y devastatin­g psychologi­cal implicatio­ns.

Our research supports the idea that ghosting can have negative consequenc­es for mental health.

Short term, many of those ghosted felt overwhelmi­ng rejection and confusion. They reported feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity — not knowing why communicat­ion abruptly stopped. Sometimes, an element of paranoia ensues as the ghostee tries to make sense of the situation.

Long term, our study found many of those ghosted reported feelings of mistrust that developed over time. Some bring this mistrust to future relationsh­ips. With that may come internaliz­ing the rejection, self-blame and the potential to sabotage those subsequent relationsh­ips.

But just over half the participan­ts in our study said being ghosted offered opportunit­ies for reflection and resilience.

“It can be partly positive for the ghostee because they can realize some of the shortcomin­gs they have, and they may change it,” an 18-year-old woman said.

As for the ghoster, there were a range of psychologi­cal consequenc­es. About half in the focus groups who ghosted experience­d feelings of remorse or guilt; the rest felt no emotion at all. This finding is not surprising, given that individual­s who initiate breakups generally report less distress than the recipients.

Also emerging from our discussion­s: The feeling that ghosters may become stunted in their personal growth. From a 20-year-old man: “It can [become] a habit. And it 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 ghosters, like that’s the only way they know how to deal with people.”

Reasons for ghosting out of fear of intimacy represent an especially intriguing avenue for future research. Until that work is done, universiti­es could help by providing more opportunit­ies for students to boost 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 at Trent University that introduced me to the work of social psychologi­st Daniel Perlman, who taught courses on loneliness and intimate relationsh­ips. Outside the classroom, college residentia­l life coordinato­rs could design seminars and workshops that teach students practical skills on resolving relationsh­ip conflicts.

Meanwhile, students can subscribe to relationsh­ip blogs that offer readers research-based answers. Just know that help is out there. Even after a ghosting, you’re not alone.

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