Breaking up in the digital age is difficult, study says

Breaking up before the digital age oftentimes involved a box full of photos, CDs and memorabilia. But untangling romantic relationships has become more complicated with the rise of social networks and technology.

In a recent paper titled "Design for Forgetting: Disposing of Digital Possessions after a Breakup," researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz found that people are struggling with how to handle digital possessions after a breakup.

For the study, psychology professor Steve Whittaker and visiting professor Corina Sas of the University of Lancaster in the United Kingdom interviewed 24 people between the ages of 19 and 34 who had varying types and lengths of relationships. The age group was targeted because they are part of Generation Y (born between 1980 and 2005), had a deep interest in relationships and are active users of multiple technologies for work and leisure.

Whittaker and Sas found that the participants' digital collections were pervasive and encompassed a variety of devices and formats. Photos were among the most frequent types of digital possessions held by the participants, accounting for about 40 percent. Coming in second place is social networking sites at 20 percent and music collections at 7 percent.

"I think that we were just surprised by the amount of digital content relating the relationships, in addition to Facebook," Whittaker told "You have stuff that relates to that person all over your digital devices."

The researchers also found that people were reluctant to delete old photos of past relationships. Twelve out of 24 participants said they deleted everything relating to their exes, eight of the participants reported keeping all of their possessions and four said they only kept treasured possessions.

"Having photos on my phone and computer did cause me to feel sad, but I immediately removed them after the breakup, in order to move on," one participant said in the study. "I got rid of all the things that were common between the two of us."

Facebook posed a particularly troubling obstacle because of the complicated nature of social networks. Some participants said they had a hard time moving forward because seeing a ex-partner on Facebook conjured up old wounds or left pangs of jealousy because partners moved on.

"I miss him," another participant said. "His uploads on Facebook make me feel hurt. What hurts are pictures with his new friends and new experiences, because I can see him but cannot talk to him. I have thousands of questions in my mind but I cannot ask him."

It's been widely discussed that many people put their best foot forward on Facebook, only posting highlights of their lives. Whittaker says that the social network presents a more positive side than is the case, which can be a problem if you're the one that's dumped.

Whittaker says that there is an added problem of having to explain breakups to friends who aren't close to the situation.

"Having people who aren't in your inner circle ask 'are you ok?' -- this is not a conversation they want to have because they haven't talked to them in a while," Whittaker says. "It's like having an acquaintance asking about your emotional life."

There is also the problem of whether or not to unfriend ex-partners and their friends or family. If the choice is to unfriend an ex, the next natural question is how many mutual friends should be included.

"You can unfriend your ex, but also you have to make a decision about how much of their social network you want to rip out," Whittaker says. "The problem is that they might be your friends too. Then you transform your social network in a major way."

Whittaker and Sas recommend creating a "Pandora's Box" that holds digital possessions, with the goal being to hide the files until there is some distance from the breakup.

Sounding like something out of a science fiction film, the researchers also suggest a new way to "automatically harvest digital material about the relationship, using face recognition, machine learning or entity extraction to generate a unified set of possessions about the relationship. Being automatic allows collation without participants having to confront painful reminders."

Whittaker says this is only an exploratory study and would like to expand his research because he believes people are ready to talk about this topic. He says he's also eying people who are going through a divorce and broadening the base to go cross-cultural.

The research paper was presented at the CHI 2013 conference in Paris, France.

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