New research quantifies why you want to quit social media but can’t

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Oct 10, 2023
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Do people get a lot out of being on social media, or do we stay on these platforms simply because everyone else does and we don't want to miss out? Matt Cardy/Getty Images

New research quantifies why you want to quit social media but can’t

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Oct 10, 2023
Heard on:
Do people get a lot out of being on social media, or do we stay on these platforms simply because everyone else does and we don't want to miss out? Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Maybe you’ve come to the conclusion that social media apps can be a real time suck. But what does economics say about it? And what does economics say about our ability to extricate ourselves?

Leonardo Bursztyn is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and he’s co-author of the new paper “When Product Markets Become Collective Traps: The Case of Social Media.” This research lays out that when given the choice between staying on social media and leaving it, people are willing to stay for fear of missing out.

But what about a third scenario? One where a collective group decides they’ll get off of social media if everyone else does? Based on the research, that option seems to be a heavy preference. And that raises some questions about whether social media is bringing value to our lives, or if perhaps we value it only because we don’t want to feel left out.

Bursztyn spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio, and the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So you looked at TikTok and Instagram, and you find that when people spend time on these apps, there’s a way to measure whether or not they get much out of it, whether it’s worth it. What’d you find?

Leonardo Bursztyn: Yeah this paper starts from a conceptual insight. It’s the idea that when people think about the value that a product has, the welfare it creates to the consumers of this product, people usually take for granted that if you’re willing to pay to use a product, or if you have to be paid to stop using it, that means that the product is giving you value, that you value it positively, right? So we ran these experiments with college students throughout the U.S. And what we found is that, yes, indeed, if you want to get someone off of one of these platforms for a month, you have to pay them, individually about $50 on average, right? But the question is, is it because social media is giving them a lot of utility? Are they really enjoying social media? Or is just like … it’s painful, but it’s less painful than being the one who’s not using it?

Brancaccio: So, first of all, there’s previous research that shows that you’d have to pay people to get off social media. And then you asked a similar question. But then you turn it around by asking additional questions about what would you pay if we could get everyone off of social media?

Bursztyn: That’s exactly right. And then we asked them, “OK, suppose we’re in this context. What would you prefer? Would you prefer that we keep things as they are? Or do you prefer that we actually went ahead and deactivated the accounts of your classmates and yourself for four weeks? And if so, how much are you willing to pay for us to implement this collective deactivation?”

The same students that you have to pay to quit social media alone, are willing to pay to remove social media from their network. So the conclusion is not that they enjoy social media, per se, that they’re happier on social media, right? The conclusion is that while they’re happier to be on social media, compared to the situation where they are the only one left out. But they would prefer a world without social media in that context.

Brancaccio: We’re trapped, in some cases, using this stuff. It reminds me of an example, I think, from back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, when I was in graduate school. People started getting home answering machines for their telephones. I didn’t want one, I couldn’t afford one. But also, I just didn’t like the idea of people leaving these messages that I had to respond to. Eventually, the entire culture “vibed” me into buying an answering machine.

Bursztyn: Yes, exactly. It’s a good example. So we think social media is one important case of this perhaps potentially more general phenomenon, which is the idea that it might be very costly for you to not be using a product when everyone else is. And that’s the reason why you are pushed toward using it, right?

The thing is, you cannot quit alone for the reasons we’re describing. So that’s why we call it a collective trap. If people could coordinate and stop using altogether, like, collectively, then they will be better off. But it’s very difficult for this coordination to happen. You will need everyone to stop using together and that’s very difficult to achieve.

And, as you said, this could be something more general. For example, in the paper, we also asked people about luxury brands. It could be potentially the case that a lot of people buy fancy brands — Gucci, Armani, and so on, Chanel — perhaps because … part of the reason could be that if you don’t buy it, you don’t have status, right? So you have to buy it to build social status. So we asked the people, the buyers themselves, people who have purchased items from these brands: Would you prefer to live in a world where these brands didn’t exist? And the buyers themselves say they would prefer.

Similarly we asked a question about the iPhone. We’re mentioning technology. Is it possible that some people would prefer that Apple did not release an iPhone, a new iPhone, every single year, and yet they buy it? Because they feel like they have to buy it, otherwise they’re not cool, they’re excluded, and so on. So we asked people, like people who actually own iPhones, would you prefer that Apple released the iPhone every year or every other year? The numbers are striking: Over 90% of the iPhone consumers, people who own iPhones, would prefer that Apple released the iPhone every other year, as opposed to every year. Yet they keep buying it. So that’s the idea of this collective trap.

Brancaccio: So we shouldn’t misunderstand your research: It’s not that people get nothing by being stuck on Tik Tok and Instagram. or being forced to buy an iPhone against their will. They’re getting something. It’s a status thing, or at least it’s the ability to fit in, or it’s not missing out. So I mean … there’s utility in that.

Bursztyn: Yes, but you know, it’s all about what you should compare that to. Typically, a person cannot make a market disappear. So. yes, they prefer to have it because they compare it against the alternative of being left out. They don’t like it. They don’t like being left out. So they prefer to buy it.

Then, the question we have is: How should we think about the value of these markets? Because you have, potentially, markets for which people would prefer the market not to exist. But they don’t have any power individually against the existence of the market. So they’re sucked into the market, but they would prefer the market not to exist, right? So it all depends on what you compare the situation to.

Brancaccio: As we think about some of this, in the future, there are going to be greater debates about the trade-offs that we tend to make when engaging with social media, in terms of privacy — what we give up about ourselves in return for the services that we get from using a Tik Tok or an Instagram or a Facebook. Your analysis changes the math a little bit as we try to assess, “Am I getting back from an app what I’m putting in?”

Bursztyn: That’s a very good question. Yes, indeed. Because, normally, people were thinking … OK, a cost that people are paying in terms of giving up some of their privacy and so on … but at least they’re getting something out of it. And people would use the argument, “See, they’re spending time on social media, that means they enjoy it. Or, “You have to pay them to stay off social media, that means they enjoy it.” So people have this trade-off. They say, “Oh, they lose something like privacy, but again, [there’s] something [they get out of this], so at least there was a trade-off.

Now, our results suggest that, in fact, there might not even be a trade-off. Like, they’re losing by being on social media compared to a situation where social media didn’t exist. But that situation is not the case anymore, because the only decision they can do is stay on social media with everyone else, or quit social media while everyone else is using social media, and that seems very costly. So they’re comparing two costs and picking the the one that bothers them the least, instead of comparing something that is costly — losing privacy — against something that brings them a benefit, which is using social media.

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