Some teenagers are opting out of the relentless pursuit of ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram—and they don’t feel like they’re missing out
By : CHRISTINE ROSEN
When 14-year-old Brian O’Neill of Washington, D.C., wanted to find out what his friends had been up to over summer vacation, he did something radical: He asked them. Unlike most kids his age, Brian isn’t on social media. He doesn’t scroll through his friends’ Instagram shots or post his own, nor does he use Facebook or Snapchat. “I don’t need social media to stay in touch,” he says.
Such abstention from social media places him in a small minority in his peer group. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92% of American teenagers (ages 13-17) go online daily, including 24% who say they are on their devices “almost constantly.” Seventy-one percent use Facebook, half are on Instagram, and 41% are Snapchat users. And nearly three-quarters of teens use more than one social-networking site. A typical teen, according to Pew, has 145 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers.
But what if a teen doesn’t want to live in that networked world? In a culture where prosocial behavior happens increasingly online, it can seem antisocial to refuse to participate. Are kids who reject social media missing out?
Before the advent of the internet and social media, staying in touch with friends during summer vacation meant writing letters home from camp or talking to your best friend on the phone. “When I was their age, during summer vacation, I was tied to the phone,” says Brian’s mother, Rebecca O’Neill. “But my son just texts or emails people when he wants to see someone, and they meet up in person.”
Most of the social-media abstainers whom I interviewed aren’t technophobes. On the contrary, they have mobile phones that they use to contact their friends, usually via text. They are internet-savvy and fully enmeshed in popular culture. And they are familiar with social media. They just don’t like it.
Jacqueline Nesi, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies teens and social media, says, “Based on survey data from our lab as well as national statistics, I would estimate that only between 5% and 15% of teens abstain from social-media use.”
To these teens who opt out, the relentless pursuit of “likes” looks exhausting. “I think it takes too much time and kids get too absorbed,” says Annie Furman, 19, who grew up in the Dallas area and is about to start college in Iowa. “I’d rather see my friends in person than tweet at them. I don’t want to spend all my time on my phone. I want to spend it in the real world.”
For many nonusers of social media, the immediacy of face-to-face interaction trumps the filtered intimacy of Facebook and Instagram. “I do love seeing kids otherwise attached to their phones equalize when they’re cut off,” says Katy Kunkel of McLean, Va., whose four children range in age from 7 to 12. None of them are on social media. Especially during the summer months, she notes, “The kids recalibrate much quicker than adults. They find a tribe, then fun or trouble in trees and creeks…. They are way more active by default.”
The children themselves don’t often feel that they are missing out. Even though “almost 100%” of his friends are on social media, Brian O’Neill says that he can’t recall a time when something important happened in his social circle and he didn’t hear about it. “They let me know if something is going on,” he said. Ms. Furman’s experience is similar: “Sometimes I wouldn’t understand a specific joke everyone was telling, but 90% of the time, it’s not really worth it—it’s just a joke.”
“Parents are so afraid of having their kids feel left out,” said Marnie Kenney of Washington, D.C., whose 14-year-old daughter Raya has opted out of social media. “They project that fear onto their kids.” But, she notes, “Social media is just gossip, a lot of it,” and she thinks her daughter is better off without it.
Discussions of the impact of social media often focus on cyberbullying or online predators, but a more immediate and chronic danger is its tendency to encourage teens constantly to compare themselves to their peers. And not just to their peers but to Gigi Hadid, Kylie Jenner and other Instagram stars, models and YouTube celebrities whose exploits are relentlessly documented across social media. “All of the comparison isn’t healthy,” said Sue Lohsen, the mother of two daughters in Washington, D.C. “Everyone has their Facebook-perfect, happy life. But you have to figure out your own self. Social media doesn’t encourage people to do that.”
In a study published this spring in the journal Psychological Science, researchers created an Instagram-like program and then used fMRI scans to measure teens’ reactions to the photos that received more or fewer likes. What they discovered was a process of “quantifiable social endorsement,” with teens using what received likes on social media “to learn how to navigate their social world.” But such cues can be adaptive or maladaptive. The researchers found that adolescents “were more likely to like a photo—even one portraying risky behaviors, such as smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol—if that photo had received more likes from peers.”
Such peer pressure is hardly new. What is new, with social media, is the speed with which peers can comment on each other’s lives, as well as the assumption that they should. “There’s a kind of bipolar effect that social media has on girls her age,” Marnie Kenney said of her daughter. “They’re constantly being judged. Their self-worth is constantly measured by other people’s response to every single thing they put online.”
“I feel like a lot of what happens on Instagram isn’t valuable communication,” said Katherine Silk, 18, who grew up in Los Angeles and is about to start a gap year before heading to Emory University. “I’ll be with friends eating, and they’ll say, ‘Let’s post this on Instagram!’ Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘You should be talking to me and the other people here, not posting things for people who may or may not care, just so you can get more likes.’ ” Like many social-media abstainers, she thinks that too often her peers “don’t have adequate boundaries” when it comes to social media use.
As for the possibility that they are missing out, the social-media abstainers are sanguine. “If I have something important to tell my friends, I’ll call them. That’s enough,” says Ms. Silk. “Honestly? Even as an adult, I wouldn’t use it unless I really needed to,” Brian O’Neill says about social media. “There’s nothing really new or creative on it. In 10 years, the social-media craze will be pretty much gone. Everyone will find a different way to waste their time.”
— Ms. Rosen is a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation and senior editor of the “New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.”