Imagine a world in which you didn’t pick up your phone straight away, every single morning, to check your likes and mentions. Or in which you didn’t know where your former colleague had gone on their summer holiday, that the couple you met once at a Corfu bar in 2010 had now gone their separate ways, or in which ‘following’ meant something you would call the police about.
It’s hard for most of us. When Facebook launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010, we joined in our millions. As of this year, 3.48 billion of us are on social media – and according to recent statistics, 90% of the UK population spend three hours a day on their phones. It is almost inconceivable that, over the last 15 years, anyone might have resisted the urge to see what all the fuss was about. For some Millennials, however, that is a reality: they simply opted out from day one. And perhaps, as the controversy about data privacy issues grows, they were the sensible ones.
For Sophie Oliver, a 36-year-old lecturer at the University of Liverpool, it wasn’t a conscious decision to eschew Facebook when her friends were signing up for it at uni. ‘I didn’t ever say to myself, “I don’t want to do that,” I just didn’t feel the need for it. I don’t really like the idea of having to be in touch with all of those people. My inclination is to be slightly reserved,’ she says, of an attitude that’s endured – she’s still never had a personal social media account.
According to a study by US marketing firm Hill Holliday of Generation Z – those people born after 1995 – half of those surveyed said they had quit or were considering quitting at least one social media platform, with many of them stating that social media had made them depressed and anxious. While it’s clear there’s a backlash beginning, those who opted out from the beginning say the decision was based on an insecurity about putting themselves out there for judgement, or a lack of desire to ‘show off '. Sophie says that, while she enjoys keeping in touch with friends via WhatsApp, not embracing social media from day one means she feels far more ‘in control’. ‘If you google me, only professional pages will come up. Social media really puts you out there,’ she says. ‘I’m able to stand back from things and take what I want from the modern world.
Laura Adams*, a journalist and author from London, says that her decision to opt out was largely because she’s an introvert– but it’s one that’s paid off. ‘I first heard about Facebook in 2005, when I was 23, and it just sounded really unappealing to me. The way you had to create and then curate a public profile sounded exhausting. It was the same with Instagram – even more so in some ways, because I don’t take many photos and I don’t generally love photos of myself. So the idea of inviting judgement of how my life and I look, and being able to see exactly how interesting or attractive people found me compared to other people, seemed kind of masochistic. Perhaps I’m unusually insecure, but I’m amazed that so many people sign up for that,’ she says, before adding, ‘People always seem weirdly impressed by me not being on social media – like it’s a sign of strength, when I think it’s more that I know my own weaknesses.
Carly Jones*, a 36-year-old freelance designer from Bath, says she has also stayed off social media because, ‘I don’t like to feel that I’m bragging about anything. I’m the personality type where I would be more likely to put myself down than big myself up.’ What many of us seem to fear the most about deleting our social media accounts is being left out, and out of the loop – whether it’s invitations to events or news of friends’ lives. But you can’t get FOMO if you can’t see what you’re missing, insists Laura. ‘I love celebrating close friends’ weddings and birthdays, but I get invited to those individually, as all the people I care about know I’m not on Facebook. Besides, given I’ve got two small children and a busy life, I don’t want to go to someone’s party unless they’re a close friend. ‘I don’t really mind missing out on things,’ agrees Carly. ‘If they were important then I’d know about them and I’d want to be there. The fact that I don’t probably means it’s not someone close to me.
Most scrollers believe that if we deleted our social media accounts, we would get far more done. But Sophie says that while she does spend less time on her phone (‘I just don’t have as much to do on it’), she still wastes time. ‘That’s just human nature. I’m on my laptop a lot, reading other things on the internet. Carly agrees that while most people presume she spends less time on her phone, she doesn’t – mainly because she’s in so many WhatsApp groups with friends, many of whom she has made as a mum of two young children. ‘WhatsApp has actually helped massively in stopping me, as a new mum, feeling isolated. Traditionally, those groups have been on Facebook, and because I’m not on that, I have been left out of things like news of new mum groups and activities.
Now that Gen Z are coming of age, a moral dilemma often faced by parents is whether to plaster their children all over social media before they can consent. The UN’s privacy chief Joseph Cannataci said last year that ‘strong guidelines’ were needed to preserve the rights of children whose parents upload video and images of them. ‘We’ve already seen the first cases of kids suing their parents because of the stuff they have posted on Facebook,’ he said.
Carly says she felt uneasy at the thought of it before she even had children. ‘We are still understanding what it is to have our photos and comments online, and putting photos of our children on the internet is a whole different matter,’ she says. Laura says that, ultimately, the thing she appreciates most is that you don’t compare your life to other people’s – and get to enjoy it authentically without worrying what people will make of it. ‘I don’t have to stress about what people think of my life, or my children’s lives, or vice versa. Looking at people’s Facebook or Instagram accounts would probably just make me think critical thoughts, and that’s a side of myself I’m glad I can’t indulge.’
For Carly, being offline means that she feels a genuine curiosity in her friends and family. ‘People who are on Facebook or Instagram see people and ask how they are and what they’ve been up to lately, but they know full well what they have been doing. I like the fact that I can ask someone those things and I genuinely want to know. Knowing too much takes away the need to reach out to people, and I don’t ever want to lose that.