Sunday, July 16, 2017

Is it wrong to look up old flame's social media accounts?

Social media can be a great way to stay in touch or reconnect with friends and family, get a heads up on a news item you might have missed, be alerted to a job opportunity, find out about a yard sale a few towns away, or generally keep up with things you might not have kept up with otherwise. Social media can also become a huge time suck, a too-easy outlet for anger and resentment posted at others, and sometimes a source of problems for users that otherwise would never have arisen.

Recently, M.N., was killing time by searching around several social media sites to see if he could locate old classmates or friends. His searching led him to start scanning the friends and followers lists of some people he had already been following on Facebook and Twitter. M.N. admits that he spent far longer than he'd planned at this exercise, but he was surprised when he came across a long-lost high school girlfriend, G.V., on each site.

The relationship hadn't ended particularly well a couple of decades earlier when they were completing their senior year together. After each of them went off to college, M.N.'s family moved away from his hometown, so he had few opportunities to run into his former girlfriend.

Apparently, based on what M.N. found in his searching, G.V. had married, changed her last name, had a family, and stayed pretty close to their hometown. M.N. had moved several states away and had a family of his own.

M.N. recognized G.V. in the photos she'd posted. Once he'd learned her new last name, he found himself compelled to search for her on other social media sites. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, he checked out her Instagram feed.

"I really got caught up in this," writes M.N. "I spent way more time looking around online trying to find out what she'd been up to all these years."

M.N. says he has no desire to or intention of contacting G.V. But now he wonders if he crossed a line by spending quite a bit of time checking out her social media pages without her knowledge.

While it might be a bit voyeuristic to check out old friends' social media sites, it's not unusual or necessarily creepy to look up an old relationship from time to time. As long as that curiosity does not turn into an unhealthy obsession or stalking, there's no line crossed.

On most social media sites, the user can choose to create settings so that the general public cannot view his or her information. G.V. had posted information on her various sites that was open for public viewing. People like M.N., who once knew her, could view it, and so could people she never met. The right thing for those who would like to limit access to their information to a group of people they know is for them to set up their privacy preferences accordingly.

The right thing for M.N. to do is to ask himself if searching out information on someone he hasn't seen in decades is the best use of his time. He might consider reading a good book instead. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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