Can't Delete: Why We Stay on Social Media

We can't rely on individual choices to fix societal concerns about social media.

Posted Dec 19, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Cristian Dina/Pexels
Source: Cristian Dina/Pexels

Perhaps you have seen the #DeleteFacebook hashtag on Twitter. Perhaps you have even considered deleting your own account or already deleted your account.

You probably have not.

Social media use is pervasive, with the latest third-quarter 2019 stats showing 3.5 billion social media users across the globe.

As many on social media pay tribute to Pete Frates who passed recently—he created the ALS ice bucket challenge in 2014 and raised $115 million—we are reminded that social media has the potential to harness users’ energy toward a greater good.  

The conversation about problems with social media often focuses on individual use rather than the need for industry regulation.

A recent Federal Trade Commission ruling regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal found that Facebook deceived users and “undermines users’ privacy preferences,” and fined Facebook $5 billion. Yet so much more of our public discourse references concerns with the choices of individual users and little discussion of how corporate social media platforms might change in response to the ruling.  

Despite news stories about the deleterious effects of social media, the treatment of personal data, problematic use, privacy, misinformation, trolls, and influence campaigns, according to Pew Research Center’s 2019 data, social media usage by American adults has remained largely unchanged.

In 2016, 68 percent of U.S. adults used Facebook. In 2019, 69 percent. Instagram usage rose from 28 percent of all U.S. adults in 2016 to 37 percent in 2019. Twitter usage stabilized with 21 percent of U.S. adults using Twitter in 2016 and 22 percent using Twitter in 2019. 

As an associate professor of communication and technology at DePaul University, I lead many student discussions regarding the impact of social media on our lives and society. So often, students’ first impulse in the discussion is that while they know that there are potential negative effects of social media, they also have been taught that they have to manage these effects through their own personal choices.  

The discussion, both in the classroom and on the public stage, needs to move beyond individual choice and blame. Social media platforms have become social utilities deeply entwined with our daily lives and need to be regulated accordingly. 

Why can’t many just quit social media?

To be sure, some scholars are concerned with how technology might pull us away from our personal relationships. Using these platforms can feel like mindless scrolling, but in fact, social media’s ability to make us more aware of our friendships and relationships may keep us tied to our accounts. According to Pew, 81 percent of teens say social media helps them feel a greater connection with their friends and 68 percent think social media allows them greater access to social support.

Similarly, in a chapter in the latest edition of the Media Effects sourcebook, co-author Jesse Fox and I note that social media has been shown to help people with a wide variety of social functions, including maintaining relationships, securing social support, and building networks of ties that might otherwise not exist. Maintaining positive social connections can have important benefits for users’ health and psychological well-being.

As a social media scholar and social media user, I do not fully trust communication technology companies to protect my data and my interests. My concerns regarding surveillance and a lack of data regulation lead me to refuse to have an Alexa or an Echo in my home. I cringe a bit when my children happily ask, “Alexa, tell me a joke about cats” for the seventeenth time at Grandpa’s.

Yet I find I cannot pull myself away from Facebook and Twitter. To do so would mean resigning a meaningful volunteer position, losing an avenue for connecting with my scout troop moms, and cutting myself off from a wise and caring network of academic mothers. I would lose connections I have made throughout my nomadic life.

Social media sites not only allow ways to communicate with social ties, but offer a lightweight method of relational management that keeps many more people in touch than in the pre-social media days. Leaving social media would require leaving behind not only the influencers and misinformation memes, but also community group pages, updates from cousins, news of friends over the years, memorial pages of deceased loved ones, and networks of industry colleagues.

For these functional and important social reasons, more than 70 percent of American adults use social media

Tech companies and policymakers need to create and enact policy that would protect these millions of users in terms of privacy and the spread of misinformation. Historically, individuals have navigated regulations of other communication industries without the onus of privacy and misinformation concerns falling directly on user choice.

Laws exist concerning wiretapping cell phones and landlines. Subpoenas are needed to access telephone records. Regulations regarding truth in advertising on legacy platforms of radio and television ensure some level of trust in these paid statements.

Although social media companies may wish to describe themselves as “tech” companies rather than “media” or “communication” companies to avoid having to navigate regulatory action, reasonable rules about online messaging are needed to increase trust and engagement with these platforms.

People aren’t making a choice about whether or not to leave a social media platform, they are making a choice about whether to leave their personal social network. Leaving Facebook isn’t about leaving Mark Zuckerberg, it’s about leaving Aunt Rose.

References

Fox, J., & McEwan, B. (2019). Social media. In M. B. Oliver, A. A. Raney, & J. Bryant (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. (pp. 373-388). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Giles, L. C., & Glonek, G. F. V., Luszcz, M. A., & Andrews, G. R. (2005). Effect of social  networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 59, 574-579. 

Hampton, K. N. (2016). Persistent and pervasive community: New communication technologies and the future of community. American Behavioral Scientist, 60, 101-124.

Hampton, K. N. (2019). Social media and change in psychological distress over time: The role of social causation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 24, 205-222. 

Phillips, W. (2019). It wasn't just the trolls: Early internet culture, "fun," and the fires of exclusionary laughter. Social Media + Society, 5,  doi: 10.1177/2F2056305119849493

Zendle, D., & Bowden-Jones, H. (2019). Is excessive use of social media an addiction? BMJ, 365: l2171.