Why you can't quit social media

Everyone loves to hate social media, but there's a real reason it seems impossible to quit. And you might not like it.

There's a reason it seems impossible to quit social media. And you might not like it

When it comes to quitting social media, Citizen Lab founder and Massey lecturer Ron Deibert says that we are set up to fail. (Jenny Kane/Associated Press)

*Originally published on November 11, 2020. This is Part 3 of the six-part 2020 Massey Lecture series Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Find the rest of the series here. 

For years, headlines about social media have been dominated by its adverse effects on society, from its role in the propagation of harmful conspiracy theories, to the virulent spread of misinformation, to the way our data is tracked and mined. 

Yet despite the accumulation of complaints about platforms like Facebook and Twitter, from personal annoyances to major societal infractions, never has there been a "digital walkout" — or communal "logging out" — substantial enough to bring about real change.

You'd think that if users were so unhappy, they'd just quit. Right? 

After all, it's just a collection of memes and photos of kids and pets. So it should be as easy as just deleting the app. But is it, really?

In his third Massey Lecture, Toxic Addiction Machines, Citizen Lab founder Ron Deibert mounts a compelling argument for why you'd want to wipe your smartphone clear of social messaging apps, calling them "cesspools of hatred, racism, intimidation, and ignorance."

Ron Deibert is the founder and director of Citizen Lab, a research centre based at the University of Toronto, which studies technology, surveillance and censorship. His 2020 Massey Lectures will focus on the societal impact of the internet and social media. (House of Anansi Press)

In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, Deibert said that despite "the lightspeed communication channels we have established across the planet, which we rely on for news and information… the circulation of information about the coronavirus on social media was flooded with conspiracy theories, misinformation… deliberately propagated false information, known as disinformation, racist memes, chat censorship and surveillance, and even viruses of another kind."

This mishmash of racism, conspiracies and disinformation campaigns wasn't unique to the pandemic, either. Earlier in the year, social media was flooded with a mix of equally misinformed, misleading, and harmful conspiracy theories about the Australian wildfires.

The case for wanting to quit is clear.

And yet despite all this, Deibert admits, quitting isn't easy. When it comes to true agency over these free and ubiquitous apps, we've been set up to fail.

Even though a growing number of people are alarmed by social media platforms and recognize their ill effects, Deibert says in the written version of his speech, "the fact of the matter is — we still rely on them. Indeed, many of us even like them."

Social media addiction proves difficult to shake

Do you remember when you joined Facebook, or when you signed up for Instagram, or Twitter? Or what your first post was? Most likely, it was something relatively inane, or unmemorable, save for it being "a first."

While you very well may remember the first thing you ever posted to social media — not as exciting as a first kiss, but still powered by the same neurological chemicals — it's less likely that you're aware of the moment that the curiosity became a compulsion, a need to check your phone and see what lay behind that little red notification signal. 

Make no mistake: that creep of compulsion happened by design.

"Social media companies need users, and they want the users to stay connected to their services as long as possible," Deibert said. "To accomplish that objective, social media engineers use techniques from advertising and behavioural science to make the uses of social media more compelling — and more difficult to ignore." 

Given our attraction to the new and novel, says Deibert, "our attention tends to be captured by sensational, extreme, scandalous, and even horrifying content that shocks us or pulls on our emotions."

That emotional tug and our systematic preference for emotionally-charged content mean that the very things that make social media so appalling also make it so appealing.

Too illegit to quit

Indeed, despite controversy after controversy, users appear to stick around.

While the Guardian reported that Facebook usage plummeted in the year following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company's earnings report for the same period showed increases in daily and monthly active users. (The discrepancy may be explained by users reducing their engagement without deleting their accounts, while Facebook outreach expanded to new markets globally.)

(Sinisa Jolic, Ben Shannon)

More recently, the social media giant has seen a decline of two million daily active users in the U.S. and Canada, though a company spokesperson said the drop was expected after a "spike in users during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic" and total daily active users are still up from what they were a year ago. 

So why don't – or can't – people quit, despite growing awareness of the damaging effects of social media? 

After all, we even have the term "techlash" for our frustration with big tech. And yet, concedes Deibert, everywhere he looks, he still sees people still glued to their devices.

'Our choices are not as free as we think they are'

Astra Taylor, the author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, says: "Digital media overlords want us to click and they don't really care what we click on. They just want us to do it compulsively over and over and over again."

Sean Parker, Facebook's former president, admitted the platform's features were designed to be addictive and "our choices are not as free as we think they are." 

Former Facebook president Sean Parker has said the platform's features were designed to be addictive. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

Deibert explained: "Your level of oxytocin— otherwise known as the 'love hormone' for the feelings it generates — rises as much as 13 per cent when you use social media for as little as 10 minutes."

Studies have shown that symptoms of social media addiction can be similar to those of addictions to substances, such as withdrawal, relapse, and mood modification. Deibert says it is a mistake to think of our embrace of social media as willful and voluntary.

Even if a user does manage to quit, opting out entirely presents yet another challenge. 

Chinmayi Arun, assistant professor of law at the National Law University in Delhi, explains: "Even if we should choose to opt out, there are other people that are very much a part of the system among whom we live. And so, opting out is not an option."

"If you go to university, if you hold a job, if you are an independent professional, that means to engage with other people in your network," all of which forces you back onto social media whether you like it or not, says Arun. "And so in that sense, we often don't really have a choice about whether we want to engage or not."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now