In our digital age, people often use online communications to form and maintain relationships—especially teens and younger adults. While that can be a good thing, it also means that online “ghosting”—cutting off communications with someone without explanation—has become a more common practice. In fact, about 30% of people in the United States have experienced being ghosted, with higher numbers among younger adults.
While ghosting someone may be common, it can deeply and negatively affect the well-being of the person being ghosted. But what happens to the “ghoster” in those situations? Does someone who ghosts others pay a price? A new study aimed to find out—and, in the process, suggested some healthier alternatives to ghosting.
The impact of ghosting
The researchers surveyed a group of 415 older teens and young adults in Germany about their ghosting habits, by reporting how often they’ve done things like “suddenly completely stopped replying to a partner from a casual or steady relationship on social media without that person knowing the reasons” or “broken off contact on social media with someone in my circle of friends or acquaintances without giving a reason for doing so.”
They also reported on how much they felt overwhelmed by social media or smartphone communications, generally—which is a potential reason to ghost—as well as their levels of self-esteem and depressive symptoms, initially and about four months later. The researchers used this data to look at how ghosting someone might affect the ghoster’s well-being, as well as how different factors could be tied to their initial ghosting behavior.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that young people who’d ghosted friends more at one point in time were more likely to be depressed four months later. This suggests that ghosting could have negative health consequences not only for “ghostees” but for “ghosters,” says lead researcher Michaela Forrai of the University of Vienna.
“Social connections are important for one’s well-being, and even limited, emotionally-intense relationships come with significant benefits—which we tend to underestimate,” she says. “A lack of relatedness can put individuals at risk for depressive tendencies, which is what we think happened here.”
Why would that be? Forrai notes that our friends provide social support in tough times, and ghosting a friend might take away that support when we’re faced with significant challenges. We might also feel guilty after ghosting a friend, because most people view ghosting as pretty inappropriate, and that could make you feel worse about yourself as a person—another potential depressant.
“Although they may not always notice the importance of friends, friendship ghosters may rob themselves of these important benefits and harm themselves,” she says.
Interestingly, ghosting romantic partners did not lead to signs of later depression. suggesting something else is going on there. Forrai speculates that young people may face fewer repercussions for ghosting a romantic partner than a friend, as having a reputation as a “bad partner” to one person (and perhaps their circle of friends) may be less consequential to one’s social life than being seen as a “bad friend,” which could affect many relationships.
Also, people in the age range she studied, 16 to 25 year olds, are still in the exploration stage when it comes to romantic partnerships—for example, checking out multiple potential partners on dating apps and, possibly, sampling multiple partners. Ghosting someone in that context may not seem as severe a problem, perhaps because it’s expected.
Why people ghost at all
The reasons why people ghost someone can be complex. But Forrai and her colleagues did find that people who felt overwhelmed by online communications were more likely to ghost within romantic partnerships (though not within friendships).
She speculates this may be due to how romantic partners expect frequent communications and prompt replies to their missives—more so than friends, who may not mind as much if communications slow down. This means people could have less need to ghost friends when they’re busy.
Self-esteem also affected ghosting, she found. Young adults with higher levels of self-esteem were more likely to ghost friends than those with lower self-esteem, which at first glance seems surprising. However, as Forrai notes, people with higher self-esteem tend to be willing to take more control of their social networks, not fearing repercussions as much if they lose someone in the process of ghosting. And, she adds, they may be more likely to forgive themselves and feel less shame for ghosting.
“People with high self-esteem might be more likely to engage in ghosting despite the potential harm for ghostees,” she says. “They can forgive themselves for causing other people hurt.”
Can ghosting ever be a good thing?
Despite the harm caused to others from ghosting, it isn’t always a bad choice, says Forrai. For one thing, it might be the best option in cases where discussing the end of a relationship could put someone in danger, as when the situation is abusive. It may also bring temporary relief to someone who feels they’re spending way too much time answering messages that piled up when they were busy with other things, interfering with their own well-being.
Still, she’s cautious about emphasizing the positives of ghosting given the potential problems it can cause another person—and oneself.
“Ghosting can harm both ghostees and ghosters,” she says. “In the end, I don’t think that it benefits a lot of people.”
Yet knowing that ghosting often occurs when people feel communication overload, ghostees should keep in mind that not every ghosting situation is a dis on you. Sometimes, people simply lose track of their messaging conversations, and their ghosting is less deliberate than accidental, says Forrai. Someone may be ghosting you out of embarrassment or guilt around being unable to be more responsive, and they don’t know how to address that with you, so they just ignore the conversation completely.
For those reasons, it may be worth checking back in with the person who ghosted you in some cases—especially if you have a friendship you value, says Forrai. It’s possible that giving the ghoster an opening to explaining their actions might preserve your friendship. Even if someone has deliberately ghosted you, and there’s no possibility of reconciling, checking in with them may provide some closure for you.
Alternatives to ghosting
However, Forrai isn’t asking ghostees to do all the heavy lifting here. Ghosters need to reconsider their actions, as they have much to lose—especially if they ghost frequently to avoid intimacy. Preserving relationships is important for our well-being, and it may behoove a ghoster to admit to overwhelm or fear of closeness rather than simply cutting someone off.
“It’s a good idea to reflect on your ghosting behavior,” says Forrai. “Personally, I’ve found people are pretty understanding if you’re busy. It might be a good idea to just drop them a quick message to say, ‘Hey, can’t talk right now. Please be patient, I’ll get back to you later.’”
Even if you don’t want to preserve a particular relationship with someone, it might help assuage your guilt if you explain yourself and act with more kindness. Leaving a friend or partner hanging without explanation is harmful to them, and hurting another person is likely to backfire on your own well-being, too.
On the other hand, being kind to others (even strangers) is deeply tied to our happiness and well-being, no matter what age you are. It could be better for all concerned if you act kindly, even when ghosting, and let someone know things aren’t working between you. Ditching them without explanation—even though it may seem like “the easy way out”—is rarely a good thing.
“Although ghosting is pretty common, at least within my age group, if it becomes your norm, you should rethink that,” she says. “It could spare other people harm, but also benefit you.”