Then there are the subtle ways in which the increasing digitization of our social and professional lives encourages us to surveil potential mates and assume they’re doing likewise. Daters are now replicating state surveillance, says lawyer and surveillance expert Heidi Boghosian. You might research, or put less kindly, stalk someone before meeting them. In theory it’s harmless—even sometimes necessary, given the risks of meeting strangers—but it comes with a “chilling effect,” Boghosian told me. “When we know we’re being monitored, we act differently.” It creates a distance between ourselves and our intimates. Sure, we might curate our Instagram feed with flattering photos or workshop our dating app profiles with friends, obscuring anything that might be unappealing, she said. But the bigger issue is a type of self-censorship that gets adopted in the face of so much private and public surveillance—not to mention an online world where any transgression can be broadcast widely and documented for years. “People may also be hesitant to share vulnerabilities, past mistakes, or unconventional interests or tastes,” Boghosian said. “The big picture is it can possibly lead to an erosion of trust and intimacy in relationships.”
Partners today have more opportunity to check up on each other when they’re not together than ever before. Some of this is consensual, like sharing locations, which allows phone users to track the real-time locations of other users who have extended the privilege. Some of it is so woven into the fabric of the modern social contract—watching each other’s stories on Instagram, for example—that we may not think of it as surveillance.
But when couples use social media—like Facebook or Instagram—surveillance is often the primary draw, as one 2021 study noted. Lovers can go to social media to allay jealousy or create a sense of security in the partnership: If they can keep tabs on their partner and the people in their partner’s lives, they might feel a sense of calm in the knowing. (That surveillance typically causes more jealousy, leading to more surveillance, is a particularly infuriating—if unsurprising—phenomenon.) There are positive associations with partner surveillance, the study found. Higher levels of commitment led to higher levels of online engagement—especially when both partners equally surveilled each other.