Sirin Kale, The Guardian:
Isabelle, an 18-year-old student from Bedfordshire who doesn’t want to disclose her surname, turned against social media when her classmates became zombified. “Everyone switched off from conversation. It became: ‘Can I have your number to text you?’ Something got lost in terms of speaking face to face. And I thought: ‘I don’t really want to be swept up in that.’” For 15-year-old Emily Sharp, from Staines in Surrey, watching bullying online was the final straw. “It wasn’t nice. That deterred me from using it.”
It is widely believed that young people are hopelessly devoted to social media. Teenagers, according to this stereotype, tweet, gram, Snap and scroll. But for every young person hunched over a screen, there are others for whom social media no longer holds such an allure. These teens are turning their backs on the technology – and there are more of them than you might think.
One 2017 survey of British schoolchildren found that 63% would be happy if social media had never been invented. Another survey of 9,000 internet users from the research firm Ampere Analysis found that people aged 18-24 had significantly changed their attitudes towards social media in the past two years. Whereas 66% of this demographic agreed with the statement “social media is important to me” in 2016, only 57% make this claim in 2018.
According to a study by US marketing firm Hill Holliday of Generation Z – people born after 1995 – half of those surveyed stated they had quit or were considering quitting at least one social media platform. When it comes to Gen Z’s relationship to social media, “significant cracks are beginning to show”, says the firm’s Lesley Bielby.
“You start doing things that are dishonest,” says Amanuel, who quit social media aged 16. “Like Instagram: I was presenting this dishonest version of myself, on a platform where most people were presenting dishonest versions of themselves.”
Like Amanuel, Jeremiah Johnson, 18, from Luton, grew weary of the pressures of sustaining an online persona. “It’s a competition for who can appear the happiest,” he says. “And if you’re not happy and want to vent about it on social media, you’re attention-seeking.”
After being “bugged” by his friends to get Instagram (he had stopped using Facebook aged 16), Johnson joined. He lasted six months. “If you’re having a bad day and scrolling through it, you’re constantly bombarded with pictures of people going to parties. Even if that’s not an accurate portrayal of their lives, that’s what you see. So I stopped using it. It became depressing. It was this competition of who’s the happiest.” He pauses. “Participating in that is not something I’m interested in.”
“The people who are the most honest about themselves do not play the game of Instagram,” Amanuel says. “The game of Instagram is who can maximise their likes by being the most risque, outrageous or conformist as possible. I didn’t want to play that game.”
Teenagers not ready to quit entirely are stepping back for a while. Dr Amanda Lenhart, who researches young people’s online lives, conducted a survey of US teenagers, asking them about taking time off social media. “We found that 58% of teenagers said they had taken at least one break from at least one social media platform. The most common reason? It was getting in the way of schoolwork or jobs, with more than a third of respondents citing this as their primary reason for leaving social media. Other reasons included feeling tired of the conflict or drama they could see unfolding among their peer group online, and feeling oppressed too by the constant firehose of information.”
The fact that Gen Z have had their every move documented online since before they could walk, talk, or even control their bowels helps explain their antipathy to social media: it makes sense for them to strive for privacy, as soon as they reach the age when they have a choice over their online image.
“I’ve seen parents post pictures of their child’s first potty online,” says Amy Binns of the University of Central Lancashire. “You think: ‘Why are you doing this to your child? They wouldn’t want this to be public.”
Amanuel says that the Cambridge Analytica story, with its exposure of widespread data harvesting, helped prompt her to get off social media, and many more young people seem to be turning against Facebook; on Tuesday, it was reported that the number of Facebook users aged 18 to 24 in Britain is expected to fall 1.8% this year.
Some of the teens I spoke to were concerned about how technologies such as Snap Map – a Snapchat feature that tracks your friends geographically, in real time – were spreading through their schools, and mistrustful of the privacy consequences of being surveilled by your followers wherever you go. “Snap Map is this big thing with a lot of my friends, but there is a sense of privacy that is being breached as well,” Isabelle says.
“Our research shows that the biggest fear of quitting or pausing social media is missing out,” Bielby says. Some are more sanguine than others. “Do I miss out on stuff?” Morgan asks. “Yeah, of course. People find it hard to keep in contact with me. They say: ‘It would be easier if you had this or that.’ But I don’t think it’s that hard to type in my number and send a text. You’re just not willing to do it.”
Quitting social media is a determined move: apps including Facebook and Instagram are designed to be addictive. “Social media is so ingrained in teenage culture that it’s hard to take it out. But when you do, it’s such a relief,” Amanuel says. She has received a lot of “admiration” from her peers for quitting. “They wish they were able to log off. People feel like social media is a part of them and their identities as teenagers and something you need to do,” she says. “But I’m no less of a teenager because I don’t use it.”
This reminds me of something I read a few months back:
Who remembers how interesting and promising people thought Facebook was when it was seen to help educate and connect oppressed people in North Africa during people’s movements? Who remembers how positive the mass response was whenever a photo of Zuckerburg or a news story of one of his projects or comments was shared?
Now we’re past the crest of that wave, and people are responding to what has become of these tools as their abuses become more prominent and meaningful. And news stories are showing people who uses these tools and for what.
If this continues the way it is going currently, with the userbase for social media and other internet services souring and becoming spiteful (as a generalized response, not just as a reaction to an event), the coming generation may avoid social media and connectivity technology (except where forced to by the authorities that have control over them). What may contribute further to this is improved but unsecured technology, which many people are currently excited about installing in their most private spaces, their homes and cars. But what happens when the listening-tracking-and-recording devices you install on your child’s phone, in your bedroom or board room, result in the same news stories as are currently happening around social media?