Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I deleted my Facebook account and I’m glad

The following op-ed appeared in Penn Live on 3 February:

I deleted my Facebook account and I’m glad

People often quit their New Year’s resolutions by the third week of January. So far, I’m holding strong on a recent life change that was less motivated by the turn of the calendar. I deleted my Facebook account.

Matt Rousu, dean of the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University, recently published an economics study that determined the average Facebook user would need an incentive of a $1,000 to give up his or her account. That is a strong hold.

I was a very early adopter of Facebook. In its nascent days, one needed an “edu” email address to create an account, and nearly all initially were undergraduates. During the first weeks that the paradigmatic social media site was opened to users outside of Harvard, it was embraced by students at Sweet Briar College where I was then dean. They encouraged me to check it out.

I created an account to see what the fuss was about and, frankly, was underwhelmed. As I was about to delete my new account, I noticed three friend requests. It seemed insensitive to ignore them and, in my own way, I was hooked. Fifteen years later, I had accumulated about 2,500 “friends” ranging from real friends to my mother to students whom I knew passingly. Initially, it was remarkably useful for connecting names and faces, a feature that now exists within university computing systems. It’s unlikely then-student Mark Zuckerberg meant to create an aid for college administrators.

In the past few years, there have been increasing reports about the deleterious impact of social media – Facebook in particular – upon our society. News stories have shed light on foreign powers attempting to manipulate elections through erroneous postings or hackers malevolently mining insecure user data. Beyond those headlines, the greater harm may be the nature of contemporary social media’s adverse effects on young people.

In her book, iGen, Jean Twenge draws convincing correlations between the rise of anxiety and depression among teenagers with the emergence of smartphones, their interference with sleep patterns, and their impact on social norms and behaviors.

In a recent presentation, Jonathan Haidt, founder of the Heterodox Academy, shared data that showed a significant escalation of anxiety and depression, specifically among girls, who are more prone to bully each other through social media than boys who tend to use physical aggression to bully. More broadly, the fixation on social media is impeding social development.

Over the course of my career in higher education, I have lamented seeing campus behaviors shift from students once actively engaging with one another on the quad to contemporary sightings of them walking silently together while busily thumbing devices. They are doing a variety of tasks, though frequently trawling social media.

I realized that maintaining an account and accepting friend requests signaled an endorsement of these behaviors to my students, so I decided to delete my account. I don’t miss it. My online disappearance has gone unnoticed by most (except my mom). Maybe a few will follow suit.

I am adding the few minutes I save to my morning exercise, so quitting Facebook really will be good for me, but most importantly, it provides me an opportunity to model positive habits for our students. That’s worth much more than a grand.


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