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Thoughts on social media time-outs (for all ages)

I can see why Pew Internet looked only at Facebook for its just-released study, since it’s the 600-pound gorilla of online socializing in the US and now used by 67% of US adults. Pew found that 61% of those Facebook users say that at some point they’ve “voluntarily taken a break” from using the site for several weeks or more, and 20% of the online adults who don’t use Facebook “say they once used the site but no longer do” (though 8% who don’t use the site say they’re interested in doing so in the future).

But I don’t think the findings are just about Facebook. Behind the data is an important ongoing story about a number of things: about…

  • How a society that has reached the social-networking saturation point* is dealing with the digital-age tsunami of information and sociality (we don’t – can’t, really – know yet, need to keep investigating)
  • What our experiences in social media (on whatever device) say about our social circles and interaction with them
  • What our experiences in social media say about ourselves.

Maybe it’s just annoying or exhausting to stay socially engaged all the time and to look in the social-media mirror constantly (see this) – we may indeed need to take breaks, as Pew found – but there could also be something useful as well as unsettling about having this mirror in our faces. For those who care to look into it thoughtfully and without blaming the mirror for what appears there (which is a real temptation!), there’s definitely something that can be learned about ourselves individually and the human race – all in good time, of course. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take breaks, once a week or for a few weeks or longer. It’s part of finding our balance in a now “hyperconnected” world, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman described it recently.

It might be helpful to our children if we take a few moments with them to look at anonymous people’s reasons for taking some time off from online socializing. It may spark some critical thinking about what they get out of and contribute to interacting and expressing themselves in social media, whether it’s Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, plain old texting or all of the above. Here are some of the reasons Pew turned up:

The Pew Internet researchers captured some “verbatim thoughts from those who took Facebook breaks,” for example: “‘I was tired of stupid comments’.… ‘[I had] crazy friends. I did not want to be contacted’…. ‘I took a break when it got boring’.… ‘It was not getting me anywhere.…’ ‘Too much drama’…. ‘You get burned out on it after a while’.… ‘I was fasting’.… ‘People were [posting] what they had for dinner’…. ‘I didn’t like being monitored’.… ‘I got harassed by someone from my past who looked me up’…. ‘I don’t like their privacy policy’.… ‘It caused problems in my [romantic] relationship’.” Reasons people gave for no longer being on Facebook were similar: “‘It’s a gossipy thing’.… ‘I didn’t like to talk too much’.… ‘I’m not social’.… ‘My account was compromised’…. ‘I got tired of minding everybody else’s business’…. ‘Not enough privacy’.… ‘Got too many communications’…. ‘Takes my time away’.”

There’s some wisdom, possibly even self-knowledge in some of those statements, maybe some responsibility-shirking here and there too. We can’t really know – only the people stating them can. But it’s good to see we’re not alone as we each figure out the right levels of engagement for ourselves, and help our children do the same, as we and they and our situations change.

There’s more data from Pew in my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid’s coverage at Forbes.com – “Most People Taking a Facebook Break Don’t Cite Privacy as the Reason” – and of course at PewInternet.org.

[*FB growth in the US has slowed sharply. The latest year-to-year figures available showed 5% growth between April 2012 and the year before, down from 24% the previous year and 89% growth the year before that, the Wall Street Journal reported.]

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