Instagram is one of those apps that was designed with a specific purpose in mind (sharing photos of our food) that’s inadvertently become a multi-purpose internet hub of, like, everything. It’s a fashion and fitness blog, an online shopping center, a meme generator, and a dating app all in one. You can spot red flags on Instagram that someone has a girlfriend just as easily as you can double-tap three photos in a row to let someone know you’re interested.
For one, both Instagram and your dating app will let you scroll through photos of your latest crush. Trust me when I say that anyone who swears they never lurk on Instagram is lying. If your crush is in a relationship, the odds of you uncovering the truth are probably better with an archive of 234 photos as opposed to the six carefully curated ones on their dating app profile. The benefits, other than statistical odds, are that you can pick up on things like who they spend most of their time with and who else might be crushing on them just by going through the likes and comments on their posts. I promise this is a way more productive use of your time than stalking your ex on social media (although, sorry, it still means you’re a certified creeper).
Together with Dr. Nikki Goldstein, relationship expert and author of Single But Dating: A Field Guide To Dating In The Digital Age, I came up with three ways to use Instagram to find out if someone might be, for lack of a better term, otherwise engaged.
According to Dr. Goldstein, when people turn to Instagram for help with their dating lives, what they’re looking for online “depends on what their dating wishlist is. Usually, they’re looking for photos of what the other person gets up to, what they do, who they hang out with and maybe even if they have a partner or what their previous partners looked like. Really it’s about trying to get a taste of who this person really is and looking for any red flags.” Here’s how to spot those red flags.
Look For Photos With An Obvious, Romantic Partner
Even the most novice of Instagram lurkers can figure this one out, says Dr. Goldstein. If there’s a photo of your person of interest embracing someone lovingly and the caption doesn’t immediately indicate that this is a platonic friend or family member, do some more digging.
Firstly, determine when the photo was posted. If it was posted a few weeks or months before you met them, it’s possible this is a photo of them and a former partner. They are not obligated to remove those photos simply because they’ve moved on — I never do because they’re photos that capture where I was and how I felt at that time in my life.
If the person is tagged, this can also be a helpful lead. See if that person also has photos up with your crush and if you can infer anything about the nature of their relationship from those posts. For example, if the person tagged in the photo appears to be posting recent photos with your crush, they’re probably still involved.
Pay Attention To Their Surroundings
What’s going on in the background of that sunset photo? Does it look like a candle-lit dinner table with place settings for two?
Dr. Goldstein says it’s sometimes easy to tell the difference between photos taken on a family vacation and those taken on a couples’ cruise, even if your person of interest isn’t blatantly photographed with a partner. Vacation photos that include dreamy sunsets, hotel-room champagne, and elaborate brunch spreads (and no faces!) suggest that this person is being intentionally evasive.
You should know that this method isn’t foolproof. Dr. Nikki admits, “If it looks romantic, you could ask the question. But I’ve been to the Maldives [a couples-friendly location by most accounts] with my family so it’s never a no-fault way to determine if there’s a partner present.”
Be careful not to jump to conclusions based on a few Instagram posts. The last thing you want to do is scare them away by falsely accusing them of something you have no real evidence of.
Identify The Users Who Like & Comment On All Of Their Instagram Posts
This is especially easy now that Instagram allows you to search through likes on a post. I’ve found that this is a fairly accurate way to determine not only who someone is romantically involved with but also who their friends are. I mean, we’ve all had that problem of knowing the names (first names and usernames) of everyone our date hangs out with on a regular basis before we even hang out them ourselves. No? Just me? OK.
Anyway, if you notice that one person repeatedly comments a series of heart-eyes emojis on every photo this person posts (and if the person likes each comment!), there’s a good chance they know each other on a more personal level.
Of course, if you really are interested in someone, you could (and should) just ask if they’re single but where’s the fun in that? As long as you haven’t gotten to the point of stalking your crush’s ex on Instagram, I’d say you’re in the clear.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of calling this weird, Millennial thing we all do “stalking.” I think if your intentions aren’t malicious and your actions aren’t invasive, scrolling through someone’s online profiles to get a sense of who they are as a person is totally acceptable. In fact, I would almost always recommend this when dating someone new. I’m not advocating you judge a book by it’s cover (or Instagram profile pic) but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be smart about new people you welcome into your life.
Interestingly, Dr. Goldstein points out that although Instagram is a useful tool for learning a bit more about someone new, it doesn’t always present an accurate picture of who they really are and how they live their lives. She explains, “You also need to factor in to the situation that their account could be a false projection of their life and you might be left judging someone based on an altered state of reality. People will often fib in dating profiles or stretch the truth but it’s nearly always a guarantee on Instagram that this is the case.” Instagram truthers will tell you Instagram isn’t real life (far from it).
When using Instagram to research your crush, here’s what she says you should really be looking for. “Look to see if they’re the type of person that enjoys life or worries more about the image or perfect shot they get to prove the life they are living. It shouldn’t be about what they do, what kind of car they drive, or where they go out to dinner but about how they live their life,” she says. There’s a difference between capturing fun snaps of travels and adventures and clearly staging every single shot. Someone who does the latter, she says, probably doesn’t lead a life that looks anything like their Instagram profile.