Social media, as a whole internet-worth of studies and anecdotes have shown, is the mental health equivalent of bingeing on high fructose corn syrup enriched with trans fats.
Using Facebook and other social media platforms has been linked to everything from relationship jealousy when you send a friend request (or even accept one), to debilitating cases of FOMO (Fear of missing out).
It’s not surprising, then, that in a recent study by researchers at the University of Vienna it was found that Facebook users are having second thoughts about their online networking.
Published in Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, the study found that almost half of current Facebook users surveyed said they’d previously considered quitting the site.
The researchers examined whether there is any difference between Facebook quitters and those who slavishly keep coming back for more.
And it turns out there is. Those most likely to quit Facebook are men who are slightly older than the average Facebook user (31 years of age versus 24-years-olds).
They are also slightly more likely to engage in online addictive behaviours, and have considerably fewer Facebook friends than is the norm (133 compared to the stayers who have 300+). They also tend to be more concerned about privacy.
While the study results paint a rather blurry profile, the trend of quitting social media (or at least the act of threatening to leave it) has become so mainstream that it even has a name: ‘Virtual Identity Suicide’ or ‘Web 2.0 Suicide’.
Applications have been devised to help speed up the process of social media suicide, such as the The Suicide Machine and Seppukoo. (Both are now defunct which suggests that they took this whole digital death thing a little too far).
There have also been a number of campaigns over recent years to encourage a mass exodus from social media. The people behind Quit Facebook Day Facebook page claims that it has promoted 40 thousand users to quit in three years. This sounds impressive, until you consider that Facebook has 1.15 billion monthly active users.
Then there was Caitlin Moran's recent call for ‘all self-proclaimed pleasant people’ to take a 24-hour Twitter hiatus as a reaction against online trolls. Some considered the #twittersilence well-meaning while others scoffed at the enormous ‘sacrifice’ of not using your iPhone for a day. Either way, it would be difficult to argue that it achieved anything except generating virtual pats on the back for the boycotters.
Threatening Virtual Identity Suicide — or committing it and then quickly resurrecting yourself — is very in right now. Lady Gaga seems to excel at it, but it’s easy to see why ordinary folk — those with less than 40 million followers, for example — are just as tempted.
Aside from wanting a break from the abuse and rape threats, or the risk of embarrassment and reputational ruin from impulsive and inappropriate tweets or status updates, nothing gets you social media attention like threatening to leave it.
A recent article in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction looked at why some of us just can't seem to stay away for long. The study found that Facebook and other social media platforms fulfil a range of psychological needs, including narcissistic drives, such as exhibitionism and the need to be at the centre of others’ attention.
But other researchers found that personality simply wasn’t an important factor in Facebook use. It turns out that people use social networks for reasons that you don’t need a PhD to guess at: keeping up with friends, a desire to meet new people and perhaps most importantly — to kill boredom.
And it’s these more mundane reasons that will ensure the survival of social media. That’s not to say that platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will be with us forever. No doubt, they will, in time, go the way of Friendster. But their demise is more likely to be linked to their replacement by other services rather than mass Virtual Identity Suicide.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com