Meet the digital voyeurs who use burn accounts to track their exes

Katie* was in the early stages of a relationship with a man when he went on vacation to Mexico. After seeing some suspicious stories on his Instagram account, the 22-year-old had a feeling he had gone abroad with someone else. He needed evidence. So, she logged into Instagram using her burn account – otherwise known as an anonymous account created with the sole intention of leaving no trace of the real person using it. Watching her beau’s stories under an alias, Katie scrolled and watched until she revealed the identity of his “mission” partner. “I was right, of course,” he boasts.

When it comes to incognito social media accounts, you probably know the type. They have a blank profile picture. Their username is either full of numbers or a little too common to be real. Their profile is set to “private”. You’ve probably come across one of these accounts, assumed they were bots, and removed them. Sometimes, though… it might be someone you’ve already met.

Katie says she uses her burner account to remain anonymous in her detective efforts, unlike her public profile which displays her real name. Who wants to be exposed as a social media manager anyway?

Most of Katie’s friends have burner accounts. And according to the five twentysomethings I spoke to for this article, so do most of their friends. While Instagram does not publish statistics on the number of accounts owned per user, the app allows us to have five accounts per device. But there’s nothing stopping you from creating more on another device. It means there are no limits to how many identities a person could create. Twitter, meanwhile, allows a user to add and manage up to five accounts. Facebook’s policy is similar.

Granted, creating a burn account to spy on someone sounds a little obsessive, if it didn’t border on the behavior of Netflix’s fictional character, black hat, serial killer Joe Goldberg in You. As The independent However, the lifestyle office dweller, Gen Z-er, I’m not yet ready to label my generation as “obsessive hunters.” We are still working through the social media addiction we were given at birth. We grew up on Facebook, following each other’s lives and hyper-documenting our own. We are used to watching our peers online and being indifferent. But it goes without saying that if you’re armed with a phone, this kind of spying can get out of hand.

Alice*, 24, uses her account to do ‘routine checks’ on a man she dated last year. He looks at his and his friends’ stories every day to keep track of what he’s doing. She tells me she chose a fake birth date when she created the account and is using a male name to throw people off the scent. The perfect cover. And, at the risk of looking fishy in any way, she decided to only follow football-themed accounts on her back burner. “Whenever I go to the account, it’s just pictures of footballers scoring goals,” he laughs. “That’s not me.” Alice sees the funny side of her behavior, which she happily talks to me about, but is comforted by the fact that most of her friends do what she does. “Both of my flatmates have burner bills,” she tells me, explaining that it was one of her friends – who uses her burner to stalk her ex – who encouraged her to create the faceless account in the first place.

I should probably just delete the burner account because it’s causing me more problems. I don’t feel satisfied after scrolling it

“We all go through phases of an obsession or some weird kind of attachment to certain people,” Alice says, trying to justify it to me. “Sometimes I’m curious [about] what someone posted but I don’t want them to know I was watching. You can learn so much from someone’s social media account, so going after them with a burner is like having a little insight.’

However, Alice has some reservations about her ability to kick the habit, especially when she stumbles upon an unwanted piece of information on her research mission. Sometimes she sees a hint that her ex is seeing someone new or that he’s thriving in life without her. “I should probably just delete the burner account because it’s causing me more problems,” he admits. “I don’t feel satisfied after I’ve scrolled it.” He admits that it hurts when he finds evidence of a new beauty. She’s tried to delete her burner multiple times, but she can’t remember the password she has to enter before disabling the account. So instead, he checks it every day.

Psychotherapist Anna Jackson has a clientele of mostly 18- to 30-year-olds and has come across patients who admit they created accounts to stalk their exes. She says it’s perfectly normal to “check up” on an ex out of curiosity using social media. “It’s human nature,” he explains, likening it to doing something a little wrong but not criminal, like walking on the grass despite seeing a sign telling you not to. “It’s something you can get excited about.”

Jackson warns, however, that someone who creates a burn account to stalk an ex is operating from “an unhealthy place.” He says it’s a sign that a person is still attached to an old relationship and that this just prolongs the difficulty of getting over someone. “You don’t give yourself space to process those really deep emotions, like sadness or hurt.”

Burner accounts are also genderless. Men use them too. Michael* calls it a “fake Instagram” and uses it to post behind-the-scenes content to only some of his friends. It documents whatever it wants without limits. He also uses it to pass anonymously when trying to support a given situation. “I use it when something has happened and I need to check someone’s Story without using my main account,” he says. “I also check to see if anyone has blocked me.”

‘Some people do it as a way to gain closure after a breakup, while others are feeding a desire to hold on’

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“Some people do it as a way to get closure after a breakup, while others have a desire to hold on.”


Psychotherapist Lisa Lawless explains to me that what she calls “online surveillance” has become common among young people. “It can be tempting to indulge in some digital voyeurism on an ex-partner,” she explains. “Some people do it as a way to get closure after a breakup, while others have a desire to hold on.” Lawless says that sometimes someone can be looking for answers about what went wrong in a relationship. But, echoing Jackson, he doesn’t think that’s the best way to find closure. He warns that the behavior can lead to lingering feelings of ‘obsession’, ‘jealousy’ or even ‘depression’, advising that it is ‘much better to [independently] focus on their own healing and growth.”

Research has shown that recovery after a breakup can be hindered by connecting with your ex on social media. It can also increase negative feelings and lead to more separation anxiety, Lawless tells me. “It can hinder personal growth in the post-breakup period [too].”

Based on my generation’s long-standing affinity for social media, it seems inevitable – if not justified – that it has reached this point. But I would argue that Gen Z should have some empathy. We are guinea pigs for a time when we are still figuring out how to navigate the internet. At least I take comfort in the fact that Alice, Katie and Michael all seem aware that their behavior could be perceived as “toxic”. They know they’ll probably have to put an end to it sooner rather than later, but who can blame them when social media has given us all the tools to dig, tap and scroll to uncover hard truths? Whether these truths will satisfy you, however, is less certain.

“I don’t think it gives you any peace of mind,” says Alice. “I think the best way is to let it go. Don’t dig where you know you’ll find things.”

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