Do you have a friend who has sworn off Facebook? Not taking a break, but someone who has completely severed ties with the online social networking platform and the connections it houses? There have been a few recent headlines claiming that Facebook users are quitting the network over concerns about privacy in bulk. This news came on the heels of a study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking which looked at the self-reported reasons shared by people who have recently closed their accounts.
Stefan Stieger and colleagues drew participants from popular web portals set up to support users who want to close their accounts. The profile of the Facebook "quitter" they generated is that of someone who is male (71.5%), 31 years old, had owned their Facebook account for about 26 months and spent on average 1.9 hours per day on Facebook. Facebook "users" were drawn from a social science survey portal. These users were represented as female (70.5%), 24 years old, had owned their account for about 29 months, and spend about 1.8 hours per day on Facebook. Quitters reported leaving behind 133 online friends, while users reported having about 349 friends.
The researchers found a gender disparity between quitters and users: the former are more likely to be male and older—at least according to this sample. When age and gender were factored as controls, Facebook quitters reported a higher general concern about privacy and had higher Internet addiction scores. These findings correlated with the qualitative responses. In written statements collected from study participants five themes emerged as reasons people had chosen to quit Facebook:
- privacy concerns (48.3%): data protection and control
- dissatisfaction with Facebook terms of service (13.5%): accessibility of the user interface
- negative aspects of online interactions (12.6%): social pressure to interact, deception
- concerns about Facebook addiction (6.0%): time spend on Facebook
- other (19.6%): harassment, loss of interest
There are a few issues that need to be addressed with this data set, some of which are identified by the authors such as the size and make up of the sample, and the methods of obtaining participants. Unfortunately, it seems the bulk of the quitters were recruited from quitfacebookday.com where users would have already been clearly aligned with an intent to leave Facebook and ascribe a reason for the action (concerns over privacy). Comments on the site suggest that the reasons reported by Stieger and colleagues are interrelated—that is, someone who has concerns about privacy would also be concerned about scams or connecting with too many people digitally with an eye toward authenticity.
The data also overlooks two significant points: age of the quitters versus users and the average number of connections for each group. Data from Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project shows that people are very concerned about privacy online and that young adults (ages 18-29) are more likely to take steps to be less visible online, including clearing cookies, curating posts, and using temporary email addresses. Furthermore, people with larger networks may be less likely to let those networks go. Instead, they may adopt strategies to better manage the ways in which they share information (such as not accepting invitations to play Candy Crush Saga or granting other third party apps information they'd rather not share).
Facebook and other social networking sites remain important to the ways we connect and manage relationships in our increasingly digital world. It would be interesting to see how many of these account actually remained closed and how many were reopened with revised management strategies. While this study does raise touch upon an important consideration—the ways in which a growing awareness of privacy and data management may guide our online activities—it may be a stretch to cry "virtual suicide".
Stefan Stieger, PhD, Christoph Burger, MSc, Manuel Bohn, and Martin Voracek, PhD (2013). Who Commits Virtual Identity Suicide? Differences in Privacy Concerns, Internet Addiction, and Personality Between Facebook Users and Quitters CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING, 16 (9) DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0323