As Laurien Mavey walks to class, she forces herself not to look at her phone.
The University of Idaho fifth year instead observes the trees, the hilled landscape of the Palouse and a sea of students — many of whom never once look up from their screens.
Mavey is trying to break the habit. She said she doesn’t let herself check her iPhone on her way to class or when she’s out to dinner with friends. But despite this, she still opens each of her apps of choice — Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat — at least five to 10 times a day.
“If I have missed a couple days (on Instagram), I will legitimately scroll to the last pictures that I liked and work my way up to the most recent ones because I get worried about missing something,” Mavey said.
Though Mavey said she considers herself an obsessive social media user, this level of activity on social media networks is expected among average college students. According to Pew Research, 90 percent of adults ages 18-29 are active on social media, and many of them depend on it.
This trend of high activity among young adults may start waning soon, however, as many college students have started taking steps to refrain from social media, or even eliminate their accounts altogether.
Paul Busch is one of those students. The UI senior deleted his Facebook account last year after taking a mindfulness and meditation course by licensed psychologist Jamie Derrick.
The mindfulness class does not focus on social media usage, Derrick said. But there were several class discussions on how to use social media in a mindful way. She said in general, face-to-face interactions are more fulfilling to human beings than digital connections. But as long as people stay aware of their use of social media, the platforms can still be used in a healthy way.
Busch said he decided to delete his Facebook account because he wanted to work on his relationships with his friends. Despite one of the advertised benefits of Facebook and other social networks being the ability to make and strengthen connections with others, Busch said the platform is based more on observing others rather than interacting with them.
Sophomore Gillian Freitas took herself off of Twitter and Instagram for similar reasons. She said the amount of negativity she was exposed to in both networks was not worth the benefits either app offered.
Freitas quit Twitter about seven months ago.
“Twitter was a no-brainer,” she said.
A photographer, Freitas said she enjoyed using Instagram as an outlet for her creativity. But the negative energy spread again and turned what was once a fun activity into a competition. She took herself off of Instagram at the start of the spring semester, and instead she said she plans to use the Flickr app that has always been on her phone but she’s never used before.
Facebook and Snapchat remain on Freitas’ phone, but she said she doesn’t spend much time on either. She rarely makes Facebook posts, only opening the app when she gets a notification.
Without a pack of social media networks eating up her free time, Freitas said she found she was more productive than ever. She feels more connected to the Moscow community and she procrastinates less because she doesn’t have the outlets of her social media networks to procrastinate with.
Busch didn’t feel more productive after he deleted his Facebook account. Instead, he said he felt an immediate sense of anxiety because he didn’t have a way to fill his free time.
“Nowadays people don’t have to deal with being bored,” Busch said. “People don’t actually have to sit with themselves alone, and that puts tremendous pressure on your psyche to accept that you’re doing nothing.”
Over time, he said the urge to reopen his account waned, but he still felt the need to connect with people. To fulfill this need, Busch started calling people on the phone. When he first started doing this, he said people were so thrown off that they answered out of concern, thinking he was calling because of an emergency.
Freitas said she received similar responses when she called people on the phone.
“Both of my parents were like, ‘What are you doing? What’s wrong?’” Freitas said.
Eventually, people got used to Busch communicating through phone calls instead of via social media. Without the use of digital platforms like Facebook, his relationships with others have been altered, sometimes in surprising ways.
After Busch deleted his Facebook account, he was visiting the library in his hometown when he recognized a high school acquaintance. He said he had the urge to talk to her even though he didn’t know her very well, and after catching up they decided to start hanging out more and they are now close friends who stay in touch with each other.
This initial face-to-face interaction helped to foster that friendship, but Busch said social media can also be an effective tool to build relationships. He said one of his friends extended a friend request on Facebook to someone he did not know — the only connection they had was through a separate mutual friend. Despite this, they started messaging each other, and as they got to know each other they talked more, all without ever meeting in person. Busch said he’s pretty sure the two are soulmates.
Mavey said she has also made friendships through her use of Twitter, but she makes sure to devote time to spend with her friends outside of social media.
“You get out of friendship what you put into it,” Mavey said. “It’s up to you.”
Aside from the ability to build digital connections, many social media users derive much of their self-worth from how others respond to them on the networks. Mavey said she finds it annoying how much she cares about the number of likes or favorites she gets on her posts, and yet she can’t stop herself from caring.
Derrick said the culture of social media is based on the level of likes and followers each person has, which also acts as a way to measure that person’s value. She said in this context, being ignored can be damaging to an individual’s self-esteem, and if there isn’t a strong source of reassurance for the individual outside of social media, that damage can have lasting effects.
The toll social media has on people reaches beyond the number of likes a single post gets. When Busch deleted his Facebook account, he was surprised to find that all of the information that he had posted on the site — including his photos and all his message chains — were compiled into a zip file and sent to him.
He said it was nice to see all of his old photos, but reading through his past messages from people spanning all the way back to 2009 got him emotional. Busch was a different person in high school, he said, but reviewing the history of old dramas and relationships he had made him relive the same feelings and anxiety from years before.
“One of the absolute biggest problems with Facebook is that you don’t have the opportunity to forget anything,” Busch said. “I think that that is an extreme problem, because you can’t move on from anything difficult unless you forget it.”
Mavey said she doesn’t think there is a way to prevent people from evaluating their self-worth through social media — it’s because of the way the networks are designed and how human beings are wired. People like Busch and Freitas can delete their accounts, but for many college students that solution is impractical.
Many social media sites, especially Facebook, have evolved to be useful tools for work and academics. It’s an effective communication tool, and if someone’s class or place of work requires social media activity, they can’t just opt out, Derrick said.
Several networks have also developed digital news distribution, and young adults in particular actively use this new feature. A report by the American Press Institute found that 88 percent of Millennials use Facebook as a source of news.
Despite this, Busch said the structure of Facebook isn’t designed to produce good journalism. Freitas said all social media networks operate as a way for people to speak their opinions — it was a big reason why she left Twitter. Mavey said she limits her use of Facebook because she doesn’t want to read long posts about her family’s political or religious ideologies.
Without a proper way to verify the information being shared, the spread of inaccurate material has made it difficult to distinguish what news is legitimate and what is fake.
This development is not new or surprising to Freitas. Before she was active on social media, she said her friends would tell her outrageous things that got her fired up even though she never took the time to properly research the topic. Before that, tabloids spread fake news that people still believed.
It’s a problem, but it doesn’t have to be one, she said. Busch said the only way to get out of the social media bubble is to voluntarily pop it. For example, Busch said he took out a subscription to The Guardian and Breitbart News to get a sense of the differences between two vastly different news outlets.
Busch, Derrick, Freitas and Mavey all agreed that while social media networks have drawbacks, it can also be used effectively and have positive impacts. Derrick manages the UI Mind Facebook page, where she posts positive messages on a regular basis. Mavey runs the Instagram account for the UI College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. A group of Busch’s friends made a Facebook page to share positive, non-political interactions with others.
In this way, Busch said Facebook, and other social media networks, have the capacity to create positive communities.