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The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-relationship contact and tracking among Canadian emerging adults

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The breakup of an intimate relationship is a highly distressing event among emerging adults (Cutler, Glaeser, Norberg, 2001) and can often be accompanied by difficulty adjusting to the loss and "letting go" (Mearns, 1991). Research on stalking and cyberstalking behaviours address criminal activities that incite fear in a target (e.g., Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). Little is known about more general post-relationship contact and tracking (PRCT), that is, efforts to maintain or re-establish contact with an ex-partner or to track their whereabouts, new partnerships or activities. To understand both the use and experience of PRCT, we examined reports from 271 Canadian emerging adults (aged 18-25) regarding their most recent breakup within the prior year. Results indicated that online and offline forms of post-relationship contact and tracking were common, characterizing 87.8% of all recent breakups, and were typically used in conjunction. In fact, online forms rarely occurred in isolation. Attempts to keep in contact were most commonly reported by users and targets of behaviours, whereas extreme and threatening behaviours that might comprise stalking or cyberstalking were rare. No gender differences were found in the use of PRCT behaviours, although women reported experiencing more offline forms.
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ARTICLE
The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-
relationship contact and tracking among Canadian
emerging adults
Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O’Sullivan
1
1
Department of Psychology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB
The breakup of an intimate relationship is a highly distressing event among emerging adults (Cutler,
Glaeser, Norberg, 2001) and can often be accompanied by difficulty adjusting to the loss and ‘‘letting go’’
(Mearns, 1991). Research on stalking and cyberstalking behaviours address criminal activities that incite
fear in a target (e.g., Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). Little is known about more general post-relationship con-
tact and tracking (PRCT), that is, efforts to maintain or re-establish contact with an ex-partner or to track
their whereabouts, new partnerships or activities. To understand both the use and experience of PRCT,
we examined reports from 271 Canadian emerging adults (aged 18–25) regarding their most recent
breakup within the prior year. Results indicated that online and offline forms of post-relationship contact
and tracking were common, characterizing 87.8% of all recent breakups, and were typically used in con-
junction. In fact, online forms rarely occurred in isolation. Attempts to keep in contact were most commonly
reported by users and targets of behaviours, whereas extreme and threatening behaviours that might com-
prise stalking or cyberstalking were rare. No gender differences were found in the use of PRCT behaviours,
although women reported experiencing more offline forms.
KEY WORDS: Relationships, breakups, stalking, cyberstalking, online, emerging adulthood
INTRODUCTION
The breakups of romantic relationships among young adults
are frequently referred to as ‘‘worst events’’ during this devel-
opmental period. Many individuals struggle to adjust to a
breakup, indicating trouble letting go of a relationship, and
wanting to re-establish contact at some level. Researchers and
health professionals have long known about the extreme im-
pact associated with relationship dissolution among adults,
with the focus almost exclusively on divorce (Fine & Sacher,
1997; Peterson, Rosenbaum, & Conn, 1985). Surprisingly little
is known about premarital relationship dissolution and more
specifically, about the adjustment of individuals after a breakup.
The current study examined efforts to maintain or re-establish
contact with an ex-partner or track the ex-partner’s where-
abouts, new partnerships or activities.
Salience of Relationships and Relationship Loss in
Emerging Adulthood
In industrialized, Western cultures, emerging adulthood is
commonly defined as individuals ranging from their late ado-
lescence through the twenties, particularly those between the
ages of 18–25 years old (Arnett, 2000). This developmental
period is, for many individuals, a time of exploration as well
as frequent and dramatic social changes in numerous realms,
including education, work, and intimate relationships (Arnett,
2000; Erikson, 1968). Pertinent to the current study, romantic
relationships for emerging adults are characterized by higher
levels of emotional intensity and commitment compared to
those during adolescence, with increases in the levels of emo-
tional and physical intimacy of their relationships (Arnett,
2000). The greater importance and value that emerging adults
place on their romantic relationships compared to earlier ages
(Collins, 2003), as well as high rates of near-constant interac-
tions using new technologies, serve to emphasize the potential
distress of loss associated with breakups for this age. Emerg-
ing adulthood is characterized by high rates of relationship
turnover (as compared to older adults; Connolly & McIsaac,
2009), yet many report that relationship loss in this stage are
the most painful life events that they experience. Breakups are
known to be a leading cause of psychological trauma (Chung
et al., 2002; Sprecher, 1994). They are the strongest predictor
of first onset of Major Depressive Disorder (Monroe, Rohde,
Seeley, & Lewinsohn, 1999), and are a leading cause of suicide
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Brenda H. Lee, Department of Psychology, 38 Dineen Drive, Keirstead Hall, Rm.
216. University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, E3B 5A3. Email: Brenda.lee@unb.ca
96 The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415
among young people (Cutler, Glaeser, Norberg, 2001; US.
National Violent Data Reporting System, 2013). We expected
that relationships characterized by greater intensity, serious-
ness or commitment at their peak might be more prone than
their casual counterparts to reveal ‘‘difficulty letting go’’ of all
contact with an ex-partner during the process of adjusting to
a breakup.
Post-Relationship Contact and Tracking
Themes of obsession and pursuit by romantic suitors and jilted
lovers pervade popular culture, demonstrated by the popularity
of songs like ‘‘Every Breath You Take’’ by The Police, and
movies like Say Anything. However, the legal terms ‘‘stalking’’
and ‘‘cyberstalking’’ have been adopted by lay people, as have
related phrases such as ‘‘Facebook
2
creeping,’’ to capture a
range of common offline and online post-breakup efforts to
maintain contact with an ex-partner over time and/or to
monitor their whereabouts, new partnerships and activities.
Many researchers and theorists have attempted to capture
the wide range of stalking and cyberstalking behaviours,
spanning from the benign to the criminal. However, the
terms ‘‘stalking’’ and ‘‘cyberstalking’’ have not been consis-
tently adopted in the literature, and what legally constitutes
stalking and cyberstalking behaviours differ across jurisdic-
tions (Fox et al., 2011). The requirement of subjective fear in
many legal definitions adds a layer of complexity in naming a
set of acts as stalking or cyberstalking, and most post-breakup
behaviours simply are not as severe. To sidestep the legal con-
notations of the terminology, the possible stigma associated
with these terms, as well as the requirement of subjective target
ratings of fear, stalking and cyberstalking behaviours are fre-
quently conceptualized as ‘‘intentional pursuit behaviours’’
(e.g., Cupach & Spitzberg, 2000; Dutton & Winstead, 2011;
Sinclair & Frieze, 2005; Spitzberg & Hoobler, 2002). Yet,
‘‘pursuit’’ is but one class of behaviours, and is insufficient
for describing the range of behaviours that manifest in stalk-
ing-like and cyberstalking-like cases, from common and be-
nign forms of online tracking and monitoring behaviours
(such as ‘‘Facebook
2
creeping’’) to more extreme cases of off-
line and online harassment. The term post-relationship contact
and tracking (PRCT) in our opinion, best capture the concept
of efforts to maintain or re-establish contact after a relationship
breakup but also the forms of online and offline tracking, oc-
casionally manifesting into unwanted pursuit behaviours.
Prevalence of Stalking and Cyberstalking
Post-relationship contact and tracking emerges from research
on the more extreme forms – stalking and the newer field of
cyberstalking. In a recent meta-analysis of 175 studies from
primarily Western nations, 25% of participants reported at
least one stalking experience in their lifetime, defined as ‘‘a
minimum of two acts’’ (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007, p. 66).
Stalking was implicated in 4.8% of violent crimes in Canada,
and 21,108 stalking cases (referred to in the Canadian Criminal
Code as ‘‘criminal harassment’’) were reported across the
country in 2010 (Criminal Code, 2011; Statistics Canada,
2011). The 2009 US National Crime Victimization Survey
found that 1.4% of US adults were targets of stalking within
the preceding year, which is the equivalent of approximately
3.4 million individuals (Baum, Catalano, Rand, & Rose, 2009).
Comparing the prevalence of stalking across different types
of samples, Spitzberg and Cupach note that there are likely
systematic differences between clinical/forensic, college, and
general population samples. Namely, clinical/forensic samples
were found to have the highest rates of stalking, followed by
college samples, and then general population samples (Spitz-
berg & Cupach, 2007). However, little research to date has
addressed the prevalence of stalking-like behaviours, such as
post-relationship contact and tracking, which do not meet
criminal definitions.
Cyberstalking appears to be less prevalent than stalking
but there is little recent data upon which to draw. Given the
ubiquity of Internet use, these rates need to be explored more
closely. There is likely notable overlap with stalking experiences:
approximately 25% to 48% of stalking targets also reported
cyberstalking experiences (Baum et al., 2009; Sheridan &
Grant, 2007). Approximately 10% to 15% of US college stu-
dents have experienced cyberstalking behaviours, defined as
repeated e-mails or instant messages which were insulting,
harassing, threatening, or inappropriate, suggesting increased
risk of cyberstalking victimization for this population com-
pared to the general population (Finn, 2004). As emerging
adults are the highest users of social media, contributing the
largest amount of content as home users, and using online
means to connect with partners in their intimate relationships
(Boyle & O’Sullivan, 2014; Dewing, 2010; Joinson & Paine,
2007), cyberstalking and less severe online PRCT behaviours
are likely to be more prevalent in this population than in other
age groups.
Research on cyberstalking and cyberstalking-like behav-
iours has been primarily modality-specific, focusing on email
use and participation in chat rooms (Alexy, Burgess, Baker, &
Smoyak, 2005; Baum et al., 2009; Sheridan & Grant, 2007). A
recent study by Chaulk and Jones (2011) matched Facebook
2
activities to comparable offline tactics (e.g., leaving unwanted
messages: notes, cards, letters for offline, versus wall posts or
messages on Facebook
2
) in a survey 230 Canadian university
students. The most common behaviour that university stu-
dents reported was looking at the posted photos of their ex-
partner (82%), whereas the most common behaviour that
participants reported experiencing was an ex-partner trying
to add them to their ‘friend list’ (55%). These behaviours
clearly do not meet the legal requirements for the terms, at-
testing for the need for new terms such as contact and track-
ing to capture offline and online post-relationship activities.
Lyndon and colleagues (2011) found that the majority of
their sample of 411 US college students (67%) also reported
having engaged in apparently benign cyberstalking-like be-
haviours on Facebook
2
(e.g., looking through an ex-partners’
photos, writing posts on targets’ walls), whereas relatively
few students (18%) reported having engaged in behaviours
The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-relationship contact and tracking among Canadian emerging adults
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415 97
perceived as severe (e.g., spreading rumours about ex-partner,
posting embarrassing photos of ex-partner). They found three
factors in college students’ Facebook
2
monitoring of ex-
partners: covert provocation, public harassment, and venting.
These factors were positively associated with existing scales
measuring participation in cyberstalking (ORs ¼1.77 to 2.95),
as well as stalking behaviours (ORs ¼2.03 to 2.50), suggesting
that post-relationship contact and tracking are the broader
family that incorporates each of these behaviours.
A recent meta-analysis established lifetime stalking experi-
ence rates ranging from 2% to 13% for men compared to 8% to
32% for women (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). However, female
victims were overrepresented in the clinical and forensic
samples used in the meta-analysis, which likely inflated the
gender differences in prevalence rates overall (Baum et al.,
2009; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). There is a far smaller differ-
ence in the proportions of female and male targets in college
and general population samples assessing offline behaviours
(Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007), although the initial literature
tapping gender differences for online behaviours suggests higher
prevalence of men as targets than of women (Alexy et al., 2005).
The Current Study
The purpose of the current study is to examine the adjust-
ment behaviours of contact and tracking that emerging adults
may engage in and experience post-relationship breakup. We
approach the behaviours from both the user and target per-
spectives—a relatively uncommon feature of studies along
this line. We hypothesize, according to existing literature on
stalking, cyberstalking, and emerging adulthood, that post-
relationship contact and tracking will be common following
the breakups of emerging adults. The current study extends
work in this area by examining both offline and online forms.
We hypothesize that the use and experience of online PRCT
will be common in our sample because of the high use of dig-
ital technologies among emerging adults in everyday and rela-
tionship contexts (Boyle & O’Sullivan, 2014; Dewing, 2010;
Joinson & Paine, 2007). We expect that there will be few gender
differences in rates of use and experience of PRCT, as consistent
with the smaller gender differences found in previous non-
clinical/forensic samples (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007).
The study is designed to address the following research
questions:
RQ1. What is the percentage of recent relationship breakups
among emerging adults that are characterized by the use
or experience of post-relationship contact and tracking?
RQ2. Are there gender differences in the types of PRCT
behaviours that emerging adults engage in and experience
following a relationship breakup?
RQ3. Which PRCT behaviours are most common after a
relationship breakup among emerging adults?
RQ4. Are relationship characteristics (duration, type, breakup
intensity) associated with the use of PRCT behaviours by
emerging adults following a relationship breakup?
METHODS
Participants
Participants were 18–25 years of age and reported having ex-
perienced a relationship breakup in the previous year. A total
of 276 (66% female; M age 21.4) valid participants were re-
cruited from across Canada. They were primarily of European
descent (71%; 7% Asian, 6% Black, 4% First Nations, 12.5%
others), and the majority indicated that they were heterosexual
(78%; 9% bisexual, 4% gay/lesbian, 8% others). Most partici-
pants were either single (56.4%) or in a monogamous dating
relationship (26.4%), and the remainder was cohabiting (8.8%),
dating multiple partners (5.9%), or in other types of relation-
ships (2.5%).
Measures
Demographic and relationship questionnaire. Basic demo-
graphic and relationship background information were as-
sessed using a measure developed for this study. Demo-
graphic information included age, gender, place of residence,
ethnicity, level of education, sexual orientation, and current
relationship status. Relationship background information was
collected with regard to respondents’ most recently ended
relationship. This information included relationship duration
(in months; ‘‘When did the relationship begin?’’ and ‘‘When
did the relationship end?’’), relationship type (‘‘When the re-
lationship was at its peak, what kind of relationship did you
have with this ex?’’ with options being: casual dating, casual
sex, steady dating, cohabiting, and married), and, for individ-
uals who had experienced breakups in the past, the intensity
of the current breakup compared to previous ones (‘‘At the
time of the break-up (no matter what feelings or experiences
followed), how would you rank the seriousness or intensity of
this break up compared to other break ups you have had?’’
with options being: much less serious, somewhat less serious,
about the same, somewhat more serious, much more serious).
Post-Relationship Contact and Tracking. The survey was
designed to obtain information about participants’ experiences
as both user and/or target of offline and online post-relation-
ship contact and tracking behaviours. Recognizing that both
partners might use some form of contact and tracking behav-
iours following a breakup, respondents were asked to indicate
which behaviours they and/or their ex-partner had engaged in
post-breakup (if any) using two parallel versions of the survey.
Specifically, participants responded to the prompt, ‘‘when
someone is having trouble letting go of an ex, they may do
certain things to try to get their ex’s attention, to get back at
their ex, or to try to fix the relationship. Which of the follow-
ing did you/this ex do after your break up?’’ The behavioural
items were worded neutrally to avoid sensitizing the partici-
pants to the topic and to minimize socially desirable respond-
ing, and the more colloquial second person plural form (‘‘they,’’
‘‘their’’) was chosen in place of ‘‘him/her’’ or ‘‘his/her.’’ Re-
spondents were asked to refer to their most recent breakup
that occurred within the preceding year.
Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O’Sullivan
98 The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415
(a) Offline behaviours. Twenty-two items derived from
the literature (e.g., Turmanis & Brown, 2006) and modified
by experts in the field of sexuality and intimate relationships
were used in the current study. Respondents were asked to re-
port whether they had experienced or engaged in any of the
behaviours after their breakup as a response to ‘‘trouble letting
go’’ (yes/no). Principal component analysis was performed
through SPSS
2
on the 22 items from the target perspective
for a sample of 271 participants. Two interpretable factors
were extracted, accounting for 37.4% of the variance. Each
factor had an eigenvalue of greater than 1. This orthogonal
two-factor solution was retained and subjected to varimax
rotation. The first factor explained 29.4% of the variance and
was identified as the Aggressive Approach factor (see Table 1).
Cronbach’s alpha indicated good internal consistency among
its nine items (a¼.82). The second factor explained 8.1% of
the variance and captured a Passive-Aggressive Approach.
Cronbach’s alpha indicated good internal consistency among
its five items (a¼.73). All items showed loadings higher than
.40 within their respective factors. The final 14 offline PRCT
items can be found in Table 1. The percentage of individuals
endorsing both use and experience of these items (in descend-
ing order of prevalence) can be found in Table 2.
(b) Online behaviours. A second collection of 12 items de-
rived from the literature (e.g., Spitzberg & Hoobler, 2002) and
modified by experts in the field of sexuality and intimate rela-
tionships was used to assess online post-relationship contact
and monitoring in the current study. Respondents were asked
to report whether they had experienced or engaged in any of
the 12 behaviours after their breakup as a response to ‘‘trouble
letting go’’ (yes/no). Principle component analysis revealed two
interpretable factors that accounted for 40.2% of the variance.
Each factor had an eigenvalue of greater than 1. This orthog-
onal two-factor solution was retained and subjected to vari-
max rotation. The first factor explained 26.6% of the variance
and was identified as the Contact factor. Cronbach’s alpha
indicated good internal consistency for the six items that
comprise the Contact factor (a¼.74). The second factor ac-
counted for 13.6% of the variance and captured Deception
and Breach of Privacy. Cronbach’s alpha for the two items
that comprise the factor showed good internal consistency
(a¼.74). All items showed loadings higher than .40 within
their respective factors. The eight online PRCT items can be
found in Table 1. The percentage of individuals endorsing
both use and experience of these items (in descending order
of prevalence) can be found in Table 2.
Table 1. Factor Loadings and Communalities for Offline and Online Post-Relationship Contact and Tracking (PRCT) Behaviours
(N¼271)
Factors Factor loadings Communalities
Offline PRCT Behaviours – Aggressive Approach
Walked or drove around to try and see them .45 .60
Tried to get into their house/apartment/dorm .37 .60
Tried to make them look bad .38 .45
Broke or hurt or damaged something that belongs to them .40 .62
Threatened to hurt yourself .35 .56
Threatened to hurt them, or someone they are/were dating .58 .76
Said things that scared them .57 .75
Said things that scared their friends, family, or someone they are/were dating .50 .71
Hurt them physically (intentionally or unintentionally) .38 .60
Offline PRCT Behaviours – Passive-Aggressive Approach
Telephoned them .50 .36
Left messages on their phone .47 .33
Wrote them letters or notes .49 .28
Tried to listen to their voice messages or phone calls .67 .46
Tried to find out what they were up to .51 .47
Online PRCT Behaviours – Contact
Sent tokens of affection (e.g., poetry, songs, electronic greeting cards, praise, etc.) .70 .49
Sent messages of affection .78 .60
Sent very personal messages .70 .50
Sent needy or demanding messages .61 .51
Sent threatening messages .45 .37
Sent sexual messages .49 .27
Online PRCT Behaviours – Deception/Breach of Privacy
Changed or took over their electronic identity or persona (e.g., changing their personal
information or how they portray themselves electronically, representing yourself as them online)
.83 .71
Got private information about them without their permission (e.g., accessing their
computer files, personal blog entries, etc.)
.74 .55
Note: N ¼90 male and 181 female participants.
The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-relationship contact and tracking among Canadian emerging adults
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415 99
Procedure
Participants were recruited from social networking (Face-
book
2
, Tumblr
2
, Twitter
2
) and online classifieds websites
(Kijiji
2
, Craigslist
2
, Toronto Star
2
, NOW Toronto
2
, Used-
PEI
2
, Backpage
2
) to complete an anonymous online survey
about the breakup of a romantic relationship within the pre-
ceding year. Participants selected a link to a study entitled
‘‘Study of Breakup Experiences.’’ After reviewing detailed in-
formation regarding the study and the informed consent
form, participants selected a link to indicate their consent
and continue to the survey. Participants were informed that
the anonymous survey incorporated items regarding partici-
pants’ most recent breakup, including questions about the du-
ration and seriousness of the relationship and breakup, as well
as reactions to the breakup. Completion of the survey took ap-
proximately 15 to 30 minutes. After completion, participants
read a debriefing form that included information and resources
related to stalking and cyberstalking. Participants who pro-
vided their contact information via a separate link were entered
into a draw for one of six $50 gift cards.
Data Analysis
The data set was examined for univariate and multivariate
outliers and violations of normality. Three cases of multivari-
ate outliers were deleted from the data set. One participant
who did not identify a gender, and one participant whom
identified as transgender, were also excluded from the follow-
ing analyses. The final sample size comprised 271 participants.
Descriptive analyses were conducted first to explore prevalence
of the broad categories of offline and online behaviours, for in-
dividual items, and to calculate scale scores. Chi-square anal-
yses and multivariate analyses of variance were used to test
for gender differences in reports. Finally, predictive analyses
were conducted using logistic regressions to explore whether
relationship features predicted reports of use of offline and
online post-relationship contact and tracking behaviours.
RESULTS
The frequencies with which respondents reported none, at
least one, or both offline and online PRCT behaviours are
Table 2. Most Common Offline and Online Post-Relationship Contact and Tracking Behaviours Used and Experienced Following a
Relationship Breakup
% of Sample
a
Behaviours Used Experienced
Offline behaviours
Telephoned them 42.1 45.8
Tried to find out what they were up to 39.9 33.2
Left messages on their phone 29.5 38.7
Wrote them letters or notes 21.0 15.9
Tried to make them look bad to others 14.4 20.3
Walked or drove around to try and see them 13.3 10.3
Tried to listen to their voice messages or phone calls 10.0 2.2
Said things that scared them 8.5 16.2
Threatened to hurt yourself 4.4 10.0
Broke or hurt or damaged something that belongs to them 4.1 5.2
Threatened to hurt them, or someone they are/were dating 3.0 7.0
Said things that scared their friends, family, or someone they are/were dating 2.6 5.5
Hurt them physically (intentionally or unintentionally) 1.5 4.8
Tried to get into their house/apartment/dorm .7 4.1
Online Behaviours
Sent messages of affection 22.1 25.5
Sent very personal messages 20.7 24.0
Sent sexual messages 9.2 14.8
Sent tokens of affection (e.g., poetry, songs, electronic greeting cards, praise, etc.) 6.6 10.0
Sent needy or demanding messages 5.9 17.7
Got private information about them without their permission (e.g., accessing their
computer files, personal blog entries, etc.)
1.8 1.8
Changed or took over their electronic identity or persona (e.g., changing their personal
information or how they portray themselves electronically, representing yourself as them online)
1.5 1.8
Sent threatening messages about them, their property, family, friends, etc. 0.7 5.5
Note: N ¼90 male and 181 female participants.
a
Total percentages exceed 100 as participants could endorse multiple behaviours.
Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O’Sullivan
100 The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415
presented in Table 3. Most recent relationship breakups were
characterized by both offline and online PRCT behaviours, as
reported by both users and targets of behaviours, followed by
offline behaviours and neither types of behaviours, whereas
online behaviours in isolation were rare. A minority (12.2%)
reported no PRCT behaviours by either partner whatsoever
(RQ1), indicating that most breakups among emerging adults
appear to involve some type of post-relationship efforts to
maintain or re-establish contact or monitor an ex-partner’s
whereabouts—all behaviours indicative of ‘‘trouble letting
go,’’ as indicated above. Overall, 87.8% of all the breakups
reported were characterized by some form of PRCT. A Chi-
square test for independence (with Fisher’s Exact Test) was
conducted to examine differences in the percentages of young
women and men who reported engaging in offline PRCT,
online PRCT, both behaviours, or neither post-breakup (RQ2).
No significant association emerged between gender and types
of behaviours used, w
2
(3, n¼271) ¼.45, p>.05, phi ¼.05.
Next, a Chi-square test for independence (with Fisher’s Exact
Test) was conducted to examine gender differences in the
percentage of individuals who experienced offline PRCT,
online PRCT, both, or neither behaviours post-breakup (RQ2).
Similarly, no significant association between gender and types
of behaviours experienced was found, w
2
(3, n¼271) ¼4.36,
p>.05, phi ¼.13. Thus, male and female respondents did
not differ in reported rates of engaging in or experiencing
post-relationship contact and tracking behaviours.
A frequency analysis was conducted on individual behav-
iour items to examine more closely the type of PRCT behav-
iours that occurred post-breakup (RQ3) (see Table 2). The
behaviours endorsed most frequently by participants who
engaged in offline forms included telephoning the ex-partner
(42.1%), trying to find out what the ex-partner had been do-
ing (39.9%), and leaving messages on their ex-partner’s phone
(29.5%), whereas the least commonly endorsed behaviours in-
cluded the more extreme forms of stalking, assault, or harass-
ment behaviours, such as saying things that scared close others
of the ex-partner (2.6%), hurting the ex-partner physically
(1.5%), and trying to get into their ex-partner’s place of resi-
dence (0.7%). For the scale scores, among those who reported
at least one type of offline form, mean scores on the Aggres-
sive Approach scale was 0.73 (SD ¼1.14) of a potential range
of 1–9, and 1.98 (SD ¼1.19) on the Passive-Aggressive scale
of a potential range of 1–5, suggesting relatively low rates of
offline self-reported PRCT use overall.
Among participants who were targets of offline PRCT, the
most frequently endorsed behaviours were the same as those
described by users. These items included being telephoned by
the ex-partner (45.8%), having messages left on their phone
(38.7%), and their ex-partner trying to find out what they
had been doing (33.2%). The least commonly reported behav-
iours experienced by those who were targets were again the
more extreme forms, similar to those reported by those who
engaged in stalking, assault, and harassment behaviours. Spe-
cifically, these behaviours were: being hurt physically by their
ex-partner (4.8%), their ex-partner trying to get into their
place of residence (4.1%), and their ex-partner trying to listen
to their voice messages or phone calls (2.2%). Among those
who had been targets of at least one type of offline PRCT
behaviour, the mean number of Aggressive Approach behav-
iours was 1.26 (SD ¼1.9) of a potential range of 1–9, where-
as the mean for Passive-Aggressive behaviours was 2.04
(SD ¼1.25) of a potential range of 1–5—again indicating
relatively low prevalence with regard to participants’ recent
breakups.
With regard to online post-relationship contact and track-
ing, use and experience rates were similar in many cases. Those
who engaged in online PRCT following a breakup were most
likely to report sending messages of affection (22.1%), sending
very personal messages (20.7%), and sending sexual messages
(9.2%), whereas the least commonly endorsed behaviours were
getting private information about their ex-partner without
their permission (1.8%), changing or taking over their ex-
partner’s electronic identity or persona (1.5%), and sending
threatening messages (0.7%). Among those who were targets,
the most commonly endorsed online behaviours were being
sent messages of affection (25.5%), being sent very personal
messages (24.0%), and being sent needy or demanding
messages (17.7%), whereas the least commonly experienced
behaviours included receiving threatening messages from
their ex-partner (5.5%), the ex-partner getting private infor-
mation about them without their permission (1.8%), and the
ex-partner changing or taking over the target’s electronic
identity or persona (1.8%). Scale scores for online use was a
mean of 1.64 (SD ¼.97) on the Contact scale (potential range
1 to 6) and 2.2 (SD ¼1.38) for experience (potential range 1
to 6), and .08 (SD ¼.31) for use of Deception and Breach of
Privacy behaviours (potential range 1 to 2) and .08 (SD ¼.36)
for experience of Deception/Breach of Privacy behaviours
(potential range 1 to 2).
Descriptive analyses were conducted to identify the per-
centage of relationships characterized by the four offline and
online PRCT factors (Aggressive, Passive-Aggressive, Contact,
Deception/Breach of Privacy), as reported by users and tar-
gets. Gender differences were not significant and the overall
percentages are outlined in Table 4. To address gender differ-
ences in reports further, a MANOVA was conducted on the
number of distinct PRCT behaviours reported from the four
factors, from both the user and target perspectives. The first
Table 3. Recent Relationship Breakups Characterized by Post-
Relationship Contact and Tracking Behaviours
Use Experience
n%n%
Both offline and online behaviours 103 38 115 42.4
Offline only 92 33 65 24
Online only 5 1.8 5 1.8
Neither behaviours 71 26.2 86 31.7
Note: N ¼90 male and 181 female participants.
The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-relationship contact and tracking among Canadian emerging adults
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415 101
MANOVA analyzed male and female respondents’ reports of
the number of distinct behaviours used. The analysis was not
significant, F(4, 266) ¼0.018, p>.05, indicating that male
and female respondents reported similar numbers overall.
However, a parallel analysis examining gender differences in
the number of distinct behaviours experienced as targets was
significant, F(4, 266) ¼3.56, p<.01. Examination of the uni-
variate analyses indicated that differences emerged with re-
gard to experience of Aggressive offline forms, F(1, 269) ¼
7.62, p<.01, Passive-Aggressive offline forms, F(1, 269) ¼
12.92, p<.001, and Contact online forms, F(1, 269) ¼4.24,
p¼.04. (Because the univariate homogeneity of variance test
for the Contact scale was violated, we decided to disregard
this final result). No differences were found with regard to
the Deception/Breach of Privacy scale. Female respondents
reported experiencing higher numbers of distinct behaviours
than did male respondents for both Aggressive (Ms ¼1.03
and 0.44) and Passive-Aggressive (Ms ¼1.57 and 0.93) offline
forms of post-relationship contact and tracking during their
most recent breakup.
Finally, to determine whether there are aspects of recent
relationship breakups that are important for understanding
reactions to these events (RQ4), we conducted a logistic re-
gression analysis using relationship duration, relationship
type, and breakup intensity as predictors of having used online
and/or offline forms of contact and tracking. The relationship
factors significantly predicted use of online and offline PRCT,
w
2
(3, n¼271) ¼24.36, p<.001, 2LL ¼243.24. Only rela-
tionship intensity was predictive of PRCT (OR ¼1.676). Spe-
cifically, for each one unit increase in the intensity rating of
the breakup, respondents were 68% more likely to report hav-
ing engaged in some form of online or offline post-relationship
contact or tracking, making clear that the dynamics of break-
ups are important for further study.
DISCUSSION
The current study explored emerging adults’ experiences of
‘‘trouble letting go’’ after a recent breakup and the extent to
which such events are related to use or experience of post-
relationship contact and tracking of an ex-partner. This study
is, to our knowledge, the first to address a broad scope of
post-breakup adjustment behaviours, from benign, to disrup-
tive, to potentially threatening, from both the perspectives of
users and targets. Furthermore, this study is the first to ad-
dress a range of online contact and tracking behaviours
alongside offline behaviours, allowing for examinations into
the patterns of use of these two related but distinct behavioural
responses. Overall, our respondents indicated that a clear
majority of their most recent breakups (74%) involved their
use of some type of PRCT to pursue or re-establish contact
with their ex-partner or to monitor their whereabouts and
activities, whereas 68% of their most recent breakups involved
the ex-partner trying to pursue, contact or monitor them.
Breakups clearly require considerable work by the partners
involved to resolve their feelings and reconcile themselves to
the end of the relationship. The adjustment process is known
to be a difficult one, often extremely distressing, and as such
draws considerably on individuals’ coping and mental health
resources (Chung et al., 2002; Cutler et al., 2001). Our find-
ings reinforce this body of work by making clear how difficult
it can be to adjust quickly to life without one’s ex.
Despite high rates of technology use among emerging adults
(Boyle & O’Sullivan, 2014; Dewing, 2010; Joinson & Paine,
2007) and the relatively inconspicuous forms that PRCT can
take, we found that online contact and tracking behaviours
were not the dominant form among our sample. In fact, online
behaviours rarely occurred in isolation; when they did occur,
they were most likely to occur in tandem with in-person (off-
line) forms. The proliferation of cellular phones capable of
and designed for digital and online access (i.e., ‘‘smart’’ and
‘‘super’’ phones) blurs the lines distinguishing between offline
and online contact. In our sample, phoning and leaving phone
messages were two of the most commonly reported behaviours
by both users and targets, indicating that rates for online con-
tact may be considerably higher if telephone use (specifically
cellular phone use) was classified as a form of online PRCT.
Furthermore, it may be that those who are reluctant to give
up a relationship after a breakup use online means to first
try to re-establish contact with the ex-partner and when those
strategies fail resort to in-person attempts to contact or pur-
sue the ex-partner. Future research could employ a timeline
approach to examine this possibility further.
In terms of both reported use and experience, we found
that respondents reported the more (seemingly) benign forms
of post-relationship contact and tracking most frequently.
These appear to occur in approximately 39–67% of recent
breakups reported. The more extreme forms, such as those
involving stalking or cyberstalking experience, were indeed
rare in this sample. As participants were recruited on the basis
of having had a recent breakup, we may have obtained a pos-
sibly more accurate picture of how prevalent stalking and
cyberstalking behaviours might be in the emerging adult pop-
ulation than is the case from most of the forensic-based re-
search available on this topic. However, one precaution along
this line is that respondents may have been reluctant to admit
to the more extreme forms of post-relationship contact and
Table 4. Number of Relationship Breakups Characterized by
Types of Online and Offline Post-Relationship Contact and
Tracking Behaviours as a Function of User and Target
Perspective
User Experience
n%n%
Aggressive approach 84 31 89 32.8
Passive-aggressive approach 182 67.2 164 60.5
Contact 105 38.7 119 43.9
Deception/Breach of privacy 8 3.0 7 2.6
Note: N ¼90 male participants and 181 female participants.
Brenda H. Lee and Lucia F. O’Sullivan
102 The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415
tracking, such as stalking, in line with possible social desir-
ability pressures. Further refinement of the measure might in-
clude a more expanded definition of PCRT before introducing
items so that it includes more clearly not just efforts to re-
establish contact, but also tracking and/or monitoring of an
ex-partner during the process of adjusting to a breakup.
Another interesting finding from the current study is that
relatively few gender differences were found overall. Unlike
studies of harassment (Konrad & Gutek, 1986; Reilly, Lott, &
Galloghy, 1986) and sexual coercion (Marquart, Nannini,
Edwards, Stanley, & Wayman, 2007) where there is a stark
gender disparity in rates historically, there appears to be far
less of a discrepancy in young men’s and women’s rates with
regard to post-relationship adjustment more generally (Fine
& Sacher, 1997; Mearns, 1991). Notably, women and men
did not differ in their patterns of using or experiencing online
or offline PRCT, both online or offline forms, or neither, in
response to a recent breakup. Moreover, they were equally
likely to use the different sub-types: Aggressive offline PRCT,
Passive-Aggressive offline PRCT, online Contact PRCT, and
online Deception/Breach of Privacy PRCT. However, women
reported experiencing more distinct offline behaviours (both
Aggressive and Passive-Aggressive) following their most recent
breakup (but not online forms), indicating possibly a greater
vulnerability to or awareness of potentially threatening behav-
iours from an ex-partner.
This paper does not address the specific characteristics
associated with the legal implications of some of these behav-
iours, specifically stalking and cyberstalking and their require-
ment for subjective fear of the target, as well as the actual fre-
quencies of the behaviours. However, certain behaviours,
particularly the Aggressive Approach and the Deception/
Breach of Privacy items, warrant attention in future research.
Furthermore, the use of multiple behaviours in constellation,
not just repetitive use of one behaviour, can constitute partic-
ularly maladaptive, possibly harmful, and likely threatening
forms of post-relationship adjustment as well (e.g., telephon-
ing, hurting ex physically, and breaking something that be-
longs to the ex, as opposed to receiving three separate phone
calls).
The current study extends the literature on stalking and
cyberstalking behaviours to post-relationship contact and track-
ing – the broader family of post-relationship adjustment –
without relying on a convenience sample of university students,
and with recruitment conducted across Canada using a broad
range of social media websites and popular online classifieds
websites. However, the sample should not be viewed as a repre-
sentative sample of Canadian emerging adults. Additional re-
search will help verify how common post-relationship contact
and tracking behaviours are among young people. In addi-
tion, because our findings indicate that emerging adults are
often both targets and users of these behaviours following
the breakup of a romantic relationship, future investigations
can explore potential reciprocal relationships between these
roles, the extent to which they predict longer-term adjust-
ment, as well as social norms pertaining to these behaviours
among young people.
Also missing from this study is a nuanced examination of
the relationship dynamics associated with offline and online
PRCT. We found that as relationships increased in the inten-
sity of the breakup compared to those experienced in the past,
respondents were more likely to report having used some form
post-relationship contact and tracking, likely in reaction (retal-
iative or in desperation) to the despair often associated with re-
lationship loss. In line with theory on emerging adults (Arnett,
2000), this stage requires the acquisition, development and re-
finement of hard-earned skills required for successful adult
intimate relationships, including skills in communication, em-
pathy and nurturance, and conflict resolution, that together
comprise ‘‘romantic competence’’ (Salvatore, Collins & Simp-
son, 2012). Existing research on adolescence (Connolly &
McIsaac, 2009; Fine & Sacher, 1997) has established that most
individuals have experienced numerous romantic relationships
– and breakups – by early adulthood. However, it is unclear
whether prior experience with relationship breakups helps or
hinders the development of ‘‘romantic competence’’ in the
same way that relationship maintenance does. A minority of
respondents (9.2%) could not comment on the relative inten-
sity of their relationship breakup compared to previous expe-
riences because of a lack of comparative experience. Further
research exploring differences in PRCT use between individuals
with varying degrees of romantic relationship experiences (from
no prior experience to many prior romantic relationships) may
help provide insight into the development of ‘‘romantic com-
petence’’ and its influence on breakup coping.
Interestingly, how long respondents had been in the rela-
tionship and the apparent level of commitment to the rela-
tionship were not associated with PRCT. Future research
should employ qualitative methods to explore more closely
experiences of breakups, the dynamics surrounding those
events, and the factors that might help explain why some
breakups are more intense and distressing than others. There
is a surprising dearth of research on this topic among emerg-
ing adults despite the significance that these events play in
their mental health and well-being. We did not assess here
the involvement of extradyadic partners, circumstantial fac-
tors (e.g., general stress levels, anxiety, depression), or the ex-
tent to which these events were unexpected. Greater insights
at this level would be useful for those who are working as
counsellors, educators, or health care providers to provide
support to those experiencing relationship loss—one of the
most distressing events possible.
In conclusion, post-relationship contact and tracking
appears to be quite common in the breakup experiences of
young adults. These responses possibly reflect developing
needs in the ability to function effectively both within rela-
tionships and the eventual demise of relationships. Both
young women and men appear to have similar profiles of use
and experience, although young adult women may experience
a greater range of Passive-Aggressive and Aggressive reactions.
The ex-factor: Characteristics of online and offline post-relationship contact and tracking among Canadian emerging adults
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 23(2), 2014, pp. 96–105; doi:10.3138/cjhs.2415 103
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... A majority of the studies were conducted in the USA (n = 22), followed by European countries such as Belgium (Van Ouytsel et al., 2018, 2020, Spain Víllora et al., 2020), Norway (Hellevik & Øverlien, 2016) and the UK (Stonard et al., 2017), as well as other countries such as Australia (March et al., 2020;Woodlock, 2017) and Canada (Lee & O'Sullivan, 2014). Finally, most of the included journal articles (n = 13) were published in criminology/criminal justice journals, followed by psychology journals (n = 8), multi-disciplinary journals (n = 8), and health journals (n = 2). ...
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Stalking and obsessive relational intrusions both refer to a pervasive and unwanted pattern of pursuit behaviors, the former being a criminal offense evoking fear and a sense of menace in the victim, while the latter may be perceived as annoying or otherwise undesirable, but not necessarily fear inducing. While the individual and societal costs of stalking and obsessive relational intrusion are increasingly recognized, research regarding these behaviors and their consequences has been limited by measurement issues, as most studies have relied on questionnaires and checklists based on very limited validation data. The goal of the present study is to report on the development and validation of the Stalking and Obsessive Relational Intrusions Questionnaire (SORI-Q), a 28-item self-report questionnaire designed to probe for perpetration of stalking-like behaviors. Young adults (age 18–30 years) from a community sample ( N = 1,804; 82.6% women) were recruited online. They completed the SORI-Q, along with measures of dark personality traits, insecure attachment dimensions, and intimate partner violence. Overall, the SORI-Q displayed sound psychometric properties. Exploratory and Confirmatory Factor Analysis yielded a two-factor solution ( Hyper-intimacy and Domineering control) with adequate to good fit indices. The total scale and the two factor scores showed high internal consistency (above 0.70 for all indices). A number of gender differences were observed at total-, factor-, and item-level, the most outstanding being that women had a higher score on the total SORI-Q score, and on the Domineering control factor and most of its items. The questionnaire showed conceptually meaningful positive correlations with dark personality traits, attachment anxiety, and intimate partner violence. Dominance analysis revealed that attachment anxiety and Machiavellianism were the strongest statistical predictors of SORI-Q scores. The SORI-Q should be seen as a promising new measure of stalking-like and ORI behaviors in young adults from community settings.
... 3 When a relationship ends, former partners make decisions about their online, often public, connections and history, which involve a complex disentangling process. 3 However, disconnection activity varies across individuals, and the intensity and frequency of post-relationship contact and tracing (PRCT) 4 relate to numerous factors, including breakup distress, jealousy, uncertainty, and desire to reunite. 1,3,[5][6][7] This study extends prior research by characterizing groups of individuals based on PRCT behaviors using latent profile analysis (LPA) and examining differences in post-relationship adjustment. ...
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... Turing to other forms of cybercrimes, it recognized cyber stalking, sexting, online child sexual abuse, and cyber hate, which are prevalent in the cyberspace. As causes of cyber stalking is breakup of relationship, [62] and sexting are lack of awareness of legal consequences, [32,63] impressing and flirting with partner and peer pressure [64] ; coercion to woman by male counterparts in different way like 'persistent requests, anger, and threats' [65] and treat sexting as 'a joke'. [32] Then, online child sexual abuse constituted with three elements like cyberspace, possession and extortion. ...
... Turing to other forms of cybercrimes, it recognized cyber stalking, sexting, online child sexual abuse, and cyber hate, which are prevalent in the cyberspace. As causes of cyber stalking is breakup of relationship, [62] and sexting are lack of awareness of legal consequences, [32,63] impressing and flirting with partner and peer pressure [64] ; coercion to woman by male counterparts in different way like 'persistent requests, anger, and threats' [65] and treat sexting as 'a joke'. [32] Then, online child sexual abuse constituted with three elements like cyberspace, possession and extortion. ...
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A systematic literature review on causes of cybercrime victimization has been done for this study to explore the severity of cybercrime. While 111 articles from Scopus and ASSIA databases were thematically analyzed to find trajectories of factors of cybercrime. Cyberbullying are prevalent among various forms of cybercrime. It is evident that adolescents are most targeted victims of cybercrime. It observed attitude, low self control, psychopathic behaviors, bystander behavior, social inequality, more use of cell phone and Internet, and school delinquency as the main causes of cyberbullying. Particularly, older member of the society is responsible for online fraud. The causes of online fraud found vulnerability, greed, trust, naiveté, strong emotions, access to internet from home, lack of awareness, and chronic underreporting of cybercrime. In addition, software piracy, online harassment and computer hacking as cyber deviance caused due to availability of personal information in Social Networking Sites (SNS), socioeconomic, psychosocial, and geopolitical aspects, pornography, sexual promiscuity, minor daily stressors, living without parents and less active offline social life. Crypto market is a new form of cybercrime where criminals maintain a website to keep them anonymous for drugs dealing. Breakup of relationship and coercion to woman by male counterparts are the causal factors of cyber stalking and sexting respectively. However, follow up strategy, warning, sanction and educational programs were identified as prevention initiatives. Hence, this study is not beyond the limitation of empirical observations which will be the future research initiative to construct reporting mechanism of cybercrime.
... Turing to other forms of cybercrimes, it recognized cyber stalking, sexting, online child sexual abuse, and cyber hate, which are prevalent in the cyberspace. As causes of cyber stalking is breakup of relationship, [62] and sexting are lack of awareness of legal consequences, [32,63] impressing and flirting with partner and peer pressure [64] ; coercion to woman by male counterparts in different way like 'persistent requests, anger, and threats' [65] and treat sexting as 'a joke'. [32] Then, online child sexual abuse constituted with three elements like cyberspace, possession and extortion. ...
... Turing to other forms of cybercrimes, it recognized cyber stalking, sexting, online child sexual abuse, and cyber hate, which are prevalent in the cyberspace. As causes of cyber stalking is breakup of relationship, [62] and sexting are lack of awareness of legal consequences, [32,63] impressing and flirting with partner and peer pressure [64] ; coercion to woman by male counterparts in different way like 'persistent requests, anger, and threats' [65] and treat sexting as 'a joke'. [32] Then, online child sexual abuse constituted with three elements like cyberspace, possession and extortion. ...
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systematic literature review on causes of cybercrime victimization has been done for this study to explore the severity of cybercrime. While 111 articles from Scopus and ASSIA databases were thematically analyzed to find trajectories of factors of cybercrime. Cyberbullying are prevalent among various forms of cybercrime. It is evident that adolescents are most targeted victims of cybercrime. It observed attitude, low self control, psychopathic behaviors, bystander behavior, social inequality, more use of cell phone and Internet, and school delinquency as the main causes of cyberbullying. Particularly, older member of the society is responsible for online fraud. The causes of online fraud found vulnerability, greed, trust, naiveté, strong emotions, access to internet from home, lack of awareness, and chronic underreporting of cybercrime. In addition, software piracy, online harassment and computer hacking as cyber deviance caused due to availability of personal information in Social Networking Sites (SNS), socioeconomic, psychosocial, and geopolitical aspects, pornography, sexual promiscuity, minor daily stressors, living without parents and less active offline social life. Crypto market is a new form of cybercrime where criminals maintain a website to keep them anonymous for drugs dealing. Breakup of relationship and coercion to woman by male counterparts are the causal factors of cyber stalking and sexting respectively. However, follow up strategy, warning, sanction and educational programs were identified as prevention initiatives. Hence, this study is not beyond the limitation of empirical observations which will be the future research initiative to construct reporting mechanism of cybercrime.
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Cyberstalking is becoming more common among young adults. The aim of this study was to investigate (1) the prevalence, behaviours, and tactics of both victims and perpetrators of cyberstalking among a sample of Greek undergraduate students; (2) the correlates of victimization and perpetration of cyberstalking to personality, attachment style, and relating to others; and (3) the impact of cyberstalking on victims' mental health. Results showed that 23.9% of the students were victims and 9% were perpetrators, with females, disproportionately experiencing and inflicting cyberstalking. Negatively close relating (i.e., intrusive and possessive relating) increased the risk of perpetration, whereas relating to others distantly (suspicious and avoidant relating) decreased the risk of victimization. Agreeableness decreased the risk of perpetration. Mother's affectionless control increased the risk of both perpetration and victimization, and mother's neglectful parenting increased the risk of perpetrating cyberstalking. Fear, anxiety, and depression were reported by the victims.
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