by Sonja Burrows

I quit Facebook once. Cold turkey. Back when Facebook allowed users to turn off their accounts, with the option of reopening them again at a future moment of our choosing. I actually quit Facebook more than once; it was an annual breather I would give myself, for a few months, before diving back into the social media foray.

There is something youthful, fierce — something extreme — about quitting social media. Youth enjoys the optimism of dwelling in a space of absolutes; a space in which quitting, permanently, is not only an option but a viable solution. And yet truthfully — in spite of its endearing extremism — the act of totally removing oneself from social media has recently felt to me like a missed opportunity. A lost chance to remain in that world, and in so doing to work at changing it rather than abandoning it entirely. I wonder whether cold turkey is too easy, and whether the real work happens when you stick around but modify. Retreat, yes, but do not disappear.

Maybe I’m just getting older, and age has made me moderate. I haven’t withdrawn entirely; I have receded.

Why retreat from social media? The reasons are numerous. I outline three of the most significant of them here.

Reason 1: Emotional Well-being

Initially, and perhaps most intuitively, the reasons for stepping back from places like Facebook and Twitter have to do with the fact that, for many of us, there is something that feels emotionally unhealthy about the way people are encouraged to interact in these spaces. Social media is a platform on which people are asked to do more than just be themselves; they are asked to publicly perform their identities. In social media contexts, individuals often interact only and specifically because they know an audience is paying attention to, observing, and judging what they write and how they share.

How many times have you been made privy to interactions between individuals on social media that seem they should have happened in a more private space? How often have you read a personal dialogue on social media and thought to yourself, Why did I need to know that? Why didn’t they just send each other an email? This is a regular occurrence in places like Facebook and Twitter. So commonplace, in fact, that to many consumers of social media, it has started to seem normal — even necessary — to both carry out and observe private conversations in public spaces. As a result, social media has intentionally constructed a cultural belief system built around the assumption that if nobody sees it, it didn’t really happen. The perception of a public audience has become requisite to making human experience real.

Social media was not a part of my life until I was 35 years old. This means that for three-and-a-half decades, I enjoyed interactions with my fellow human beings that were not often, if ever, public performances of identity. (It’s true that as a college student I authored a regular editorial column for The Daily Pennsylvanian, which is the closest I think I ever came to publicly performing my ideas for an imagined audience). Thanks to these years of social media-free existence, I am lucky to be able to ask: Why has human society in the age of social media come to accept as a given that human interaction must be performed in public spaces in order to be considered legitimate? Why do we need an audience every time a new thought crosses our consciousness? Are we concerned that if nobody sees the inner workings of our mind, that our thoughts and ideas never really existed?

The short answer to that last question is, I think, yes. However, a complete answer to the full line of questioning above, while certainly fascinating to me personally, would be beyond the scope of this rumination. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, our recent, global, collective human dependence upon social media for ongoing public identity performance constitutes an unwell manner of living and interacting with others. There are plenty of deeply unhappy individuals who post falsely-positive updates about their lives on social media platforms, only to make other unhappy people feel even more unhappy when they read those posts. Interacting in this way engenders a cycle of misery. There is nothing about this kind of sharing that brings people closer together; rather, it distances us, creating unnecessary human divides based on false positives.

To be clear, I do not by any means intend to suggest that everyone who uses social media does so in unhealthy ways. Certainly there are notable exceptions. What I do mean to suggest is that social media at its core depends upon — and therefore encourages — people to interact in public, performative ways. The owners of companies like Facebook and Twitter depend upon you and I using their platforms in this way because our doing so ensures a continued, widespread, and addictive use of their platform. And it seems to be working: very few people I know — including myself — have totally quit social media for good.

Reason 2: Vulnerable Data

A second, and recently more urgent, reason to retreat from social media has to do with the data and the attention users seem unknowingly — and freely — to give to companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Trust me when I tell you that these multi-billion dollar companies do not have your best interests at heart; simply put, their bottom line is your continued stewardship, because it means billions more for them. The concern that drives every decision made by companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat is quite straight-forward: how much money can be made off of you, their user. This is how healthy, successful corporations work, and we should see the situation for exactly what it is and not get distracted by any sort of hope that these companies are invested in the public good.

It should go without saying that lofty goals such as bringing people together, forming virtual communities, providing outlets for free expression, developing opportunities for cross-cultural connection — and heck, even learning — are not on the list of ideals motivating social media companies. For that reason, the idea of using social media in even the most minimal ways in any sort of educational context gives me pause. For all the reasons outlined above, social media is not a safe learning space. When students are encouraged by teachers, mentors, or programs to use social media as a learning or community-building space connected to their educational experiences, they are being asked by their educators or institutions to take risks they often do not even realize they are taking.

As has recently come to light, Facebook data is not safe or treated in neutral ways, in spite of the fact that many users think that what they post on Facebook can only be seen by their friends and family, or by other people of their choosing. As reported by the Daily Mail and others, Facebook uses data to target members with advertising, and also surrenders data to the government when requested under a non-disclosure agreement, which means personal user information can be passed along without the user ever being notified.

Facebook is not the only social media platform presenting challenges with regard to lack of safety for user data. As reported by The RegisterBloomberg Politics, and others, the current administration has recently directed the US Department of Homeland Security to keep track of immigrants’ social media handles in an effort to prevent terrorism. This surveillance will begin on October 18th of this year, and will apply to naturalized citizens of the United States as well as to new immigrants.

Reason 3: Kids

A third reason to retreat from dependencies on social media is, simply, our kids. My 10-year-old daughter recently asked me how old I was when I got my first mobile phone. And by the way, she didn’t need to use the word mobile because to her, all phones are mobile since we have never owned a landline in her lifetime. When I told her I was about 30 years old, she was aghast. The idea of waiting until you’re 30 to get a phone is beyond comprehension to today’s youth. Young people are growing up with digital tools in-hand and platforms at-the-ready that their parents did not regularly use until we were full-fledged adults. The parent generation is collectively navigating completely new terrain, attempting to guide our children through experiences we ourselves never had as teenagers and young adults. We cannot therefore fall back on our own adolescent trials to instruct us in our child-raising practices around digital tools and social media.

It has never been easy to be a teenager; unsurprisingly, social media makes it harder than ever. According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, social media is associated with mental health problems, which includes depression, sleep disturbances, and eating concerns, among young adults. As reported by CNBC Tech, new research by the Royal Society for Public Health suggests that Instagram and Snapchat are the most damaging social media platforms with regard to the mental health of young people. It is an established fact that social media has become a context upon which teenagers engage in bullying and ostracizing practices. Sadly, bullying is not new; however, cyberbullying — posting mean comments and/or hurtful pictures or videos online in social spaces — is made possible only thanks to the existence of social media platforms.

What is the solution here? Many parents find ourselves conflicted. On the one hand, we may wish to prevent our children from participating in social media for as long as possible. On the other hand, we may also acknowledge that stunting our kids’ ability to engage socially in these spaces could have harmful effects, insofar as we would be removing them from interacting in ways that most likely every one of their peers already does.

Social media has become a fact of life for the younger generation; therefore, I believe both parents and schools need to coach kids around safe usage of these spaces, rather than prohibit them altogether from participating. Part of educating youth in safe conduct on social media is first to raise their awareness about how platforms work as well as the consequences of different kinds of usage. We especially need to educate kids about the possible negative effects on emotional health and wellbeing, on the proliferation of cyberbullying, on the vulnerability of their data, as well as on social codes of conduct within these spaces. As always in guiding youth, parents and schools need to encourage kindness and empathy, and we need to establish trust so that kids involve us directly should they need hands-on support.

Informed Choices

Each of us should take seriously the task of making decisions about the type of engagement we prefer (or whether we will engage at all) in social media contexts. My hope is that the choice we make is an informed and critical one, based on a complete understanding of the risks and benefits involved.

I chose to retreat but not to leave entirely, because in spite of it all I still love the idea of a digital community and continue to hold out hope that there could be a way to do this right. I also remain because I want to find my people when I need them, as well as to be found by them when they need me. I treasure many of the connections made on social media over the years, while at the same time acknowledging that those who remain important tend to be people with whom I have been lucky to form lasting friendships outside of social media contexts.

It’s been interesting how easy a retreat from social media has been to accomplish. During the course of the last few months, my desire to share anything at all on social media has dwindled, if not dissipated completely. I have discontinued sharing photos and videos, opting instead to gradually remove and archive my content elsewhere. Personal photos, videos, treasured conversations — I want to own these dear memories, to keep them in a space that is mine, and to share them how, when, and with whom I choose.

Finally, it is not my intention to sit in judgment of anyone who chooses to remain actively involved with social media; I respect the decision to stay critically engaged. Nor do I pretend that I will never again be actively involved myself; rather, this reflection is simply a call to each of us to think critically about social media, and to make informed decisions about how and whether to participate.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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