Tips & Advice

How to have a smooth digital breakup

Emma McGowan 10 Feb 2022

These days, as we spend so much time online, an IRL breakup needs to be accompanied by a digital breakup

No one ever wants to plan for a breakup — but let’s be real: Breakups happen. And these days, as we spend so much time online, an IRL breakup needs to be accompanied by a digital breakup. 

But what is a digital breakup, anyway? Well, let’s talk first what it isn’t: A digital breakup doesn’t mean breaking up over text! Don’t do that! Be a grown up and at least give them a phone call.

In all seriousness, though, a digital breakup is untangling all of the ways that your digital life is wrapped up with your significant other’s. So, for example, many of us share PINs or passwords or Netflix accounts or internet-connected devices with our romantic partners these days. 

When you break up with someone, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of them by seeing their name on an account or getting a text asking about the Hulu password, right? Not to mention, you definitely don’t want them to be able to actually spy on your home via a video doorbell or terrorize you with weird messages over your Google Home. So it’s important to make sure that an ex no longer has access to any of those things.

What’s the first thing someone should do in a digital breakup?

The first step in a digital breakup? Change all your passwords and PINs! You know you “shouldn’t” have been sharing them in the first place, but let’s be real: People share these things when they’re in a relationship. But your passwords and PINs are the first layer of security to your entire digital life. So as soon as you dump ‘em, get online and start changing.

This is where a password manager comes in handy. With a password manager, you just need to remember one master password to unlock the “vault” that holds all of your passwords. They often also have a password generator, to help make sure all of your passwords are strong and unique. 

And, if you want an added layer of protection, you can turn on multi-factor authentication on any accounts that allow it, like your email and your social media. It’s that extra step before signing in, where the account sends you a number via text, for example. That way if your ex does have your password — or you forgot to change it — they still won’t be able to access the account because they don’t have access to your phone.

What are some shared digital areas that people might not think of when they’re going through a breakup?

One big shared digital area that people often forget about is any IoT – or internet-connected – devices that people have in their homes. So, for example, you might have a video doorbell, like a Ring, or maybe you have a Nest smart thermostat. Take some time to think about the different IoT devices in your home, make a list, and then go through them one by one to make sure you’re the only one who has access to them. 

IoT, when used correctly, can be both useful and fun. But they can also be used by abusers to track victims and create a sense of omnipotence. Survivors often feel like their abusers know way too much about them – and that’s because they use things like Ring doorbells to keep track of who is coming and going, or Nest thermostats to see when a person is home, or smart keys for phones to track their whereabouts. That’s why it’s extra important to decouple any and all IoT devices when leaving an abusive relationship. 


Further reading:
7 tech things you need to do when leaving an abusive relationship
How to spot the signs of stalkerware on your phone


Another important thing to disconnect is location sharing. The most obvious one is FindMy, which many people turn on so that their partner knows where they are. But other ones you might think of are any shared Google accounts, a “smart” key for a car, or even location metadata on photos in a shared cloud account. Do an assessment of all of the ways you’re sharing your location and cut off that point of contact, ASAP.

Is social media part of a digital breakup?

You should absolutely take social media into account if you’re going through a digital breakup. First, if you share any accounts with your partner — like a pet account or something — you’re going to want to stop doing that. Either give them control of the account or take it over yourself by changing the password.

Second, some people like to wipe all traces of their ex from their social media, deleting photos, posts, and so on. So if you feel like you need to do that to move on, go for it! But don’t feel like you have to. This tip is more optional than the safety ones, although if you’re going to be online dating it might be a good idea to scrub at least the last year or so. 

Third, it’s always always a good idea to unfollow your ex’s accounts. You can even let them know you’re doing it, at least for a while, if you think it will make things weirder than they already are. Or just, you know, click that “unfollow” button. The temptation to check in will be too high — don’t risk ripping off that Band-Aid by giving yourself the option to peek in.

And if the breakup is really bad, go so far as to block them — their phone number; on any messaging apps; and on social. That way they can’t bug you or try to worm their way back into your life.

Are there extra steps a person should take if they’re leaving an abusive relationship? 

A survivor leaving an abusive relationship really, really needs to tighten up their digital life in order to prevent stalking and further abuse. In addition to all the general tips for digital breakups, survivors should run an antivirus to check for any hidden trackers; reboot their phone into safe mode to make sure everything is gone; disable all location sharing, including on social media, where sometimes images are tagged without you knowing; disconnect shared Google accounts, because they include location; revoke access to any IoT devices; and check for any AirTags or tracking devices. People with iPhones can use FindMy to locate any AirTags that they aren’t familiar with, with people with Android can download an app to detect them.

And, finally, reach out for help – preferably on a device that isn’t yours and that your abuser doesn’t have access to. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has excellent resources for people exiting an intimate violence situation, including how to protect yourself digitally. 

Digital Breakup Checklist 

Phone

  • Change PIN

Bank accounts

  • Change passwords
  • Call bank/financial institution to get ex removed from accounts
  • Cancel any shared cards

Email

  • Change passwords
  • Set up multi-factor authentication 

Social media

  • Change passwords
  • Optional: Erase photos of your ex
  • Optional: Unfriend/block your ex

Streaming services

  • Change passwords

IoT

  • Make a list of IoT (internet-connected) devices, i.e. Ring, Keurig, Nest, etc.
  • Check each account and revoke access where necessary

Location sharing 

  • Disable FindMy
  • Disable location sharing on any messaging apps
  • Disable location sharing on Google

Cloud accounts

  • Ensure your ex no longer has access to your cloud accounts, like Apple Cloud and Google Drive

Optional: Blocking communications

  • Phone number
  • Social media accounts
  • Emails 
  • Messaging apps