Last November, after the US presidential election, I stopped using Facebook in a fit of moral high dudgeon over the by now familiar claims that it had spread and profited from inflammatory pro-Trump fake news – a boycott that has clearly hit Mark Zuckerberg where it hurts, because it’s only taken him 11 months to express a vague regret, for which I like to claim some credit. I didn’t expect my resolve to last, so I was surprised to find how quickly I stopped missing all those photos of people’s barbecues.
But then I am in my 40s and can just about remember how to use my phone to call my friends if I want to hear their news. I don’t have to go into school every day and feel excluded from conversations because I missed a meme. So I was far more surprised this summer when my 15-year-old son chose to delete his Instagram account.
At first I worried that some particular incident might have driven him off it, but he assured me it was a more general dissatisfaction, as he’d been aware for a while that using it rarely made him feel good. Some of his female friends had boldly given up social media, and there was a kind of kudos attached to refusing to play the game. My son confirmed that deleting his account altogether – rather than just vowing to use it less – felt like a weight off his shoulders, eliminating that constant background worry of how you measure up, and the temptation to click and check.
Now a new study by Digital Awareness UK and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference suggests this might be a growing trend, with two-thirds of the 5,000 young people surveyed claiming they wouldn’t mind if social media had never been invented; more than half admitting it made them feel less confident; and nearly three-quarters saying they had taken digital detoxes to escape it.
With reports last month that NHS figures showed a steep rise in the number of girls and young women reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression and self-harm, for which social media was held partially responsible, we might wonder why more young people aren’t opting out of the constant cycle of judgment and comparison, if so many wish it had never existed. Perhaps they can’t. Respondents to the Digital Awareness survey identified online abuse and fake news as the greatest negative aspects of social media use, but it seems we are only just waking up to the knowledge that content is only part of the problem.
In his recent book Irresistible, Adam Alter shows that the “like” button pioneered by Facebook and adopted by other social media platforms, including Instagram, is modelled on the system of uncertain reward, designed to hook us into returning to the site over and over to check the responses to our latest post. He tells the story of a developer who, in 2014, created an app that would allow Instagram users to automatically like every picture they followed; Instagram shut it down within two hours. Guaranteed likes took uncertainty out of the equation, and with it the source of our anxiety about the success of a post, the dopamine hit of new approval, the very thing that keeps us clicking.
A recent article about the “attention economy” reveals that senior Silicon Valley designers choose to send their children to elite schools where laptops, iPads and smartphones are banned. Steve Jobs famously refused to let his kids have an iPad.
Adults have been aware for a while that willpower alone is not enough to resist the siren call of social media and its distractions. We buy blocking software, we pay for courses to learn how to concentrate, and we are perhaps the last generation to have had our brains formed in a world without clicks and likes and memes shaping our neural landscape.
While there may be a certain retro cachet to opting out altogether, like choosing to buy vinyl, it seems unlikely that the backlash will catch on widely, at least while products are designed to form habits, and teenagers desire the approval of their peers. But a greater awareness of the fact that our teens would like to be less dependent on their online life might help schools shape policy around phone and internet use, and offer parents better guidance of how to set limits at home.
Finding ways to monitor online content and prevent abuse is undoubtedly critical to improving young people’s mental health, but there are bigger questions to be asked about why it’s so hard for them to switch off – even when many of them clearly want to.
• Stephanie Merritt is an author and former deputy literary editor of the Observer