Unfriending Facebook: New Research On Why People Like Facebook Less

Tom Webster
Jun 18, 2019 · 9 min read
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In the most recent Infinite Dial study from Edison Research and Triton Digital, we revealed that social media growth in America has seemingly stalled, and that Facebook, in particular, has seen a decline in usage. Now, let’s be clear here: decline or no, Facebook remains the number one social media network in America, and not by a little. However, since 2017, Facebook usage among Americans 12+ (and yes, I know Facebook is technically 13+) declined from 67% to 61%. To put that in hard numbers, that is a loss of approximately 15 million users in two years.

This does not mean that 15 million people deleted their accounts. In fact, Facebook might very well have gained users, at least in terms of user accounts. But that’s what servers measure. Surveys, like our nationally representative Infinite Dial research, instead measure what people perceive; whether they went through the draconian process of actually deleting their accounts or not, about 15 million fewer humans perceive that they are using Facebook than we reported in 2017.

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We were, of course, naturally curious if this decline was with any particular demographic group, and it turns out that the data are clear, here. When you look at the demographic trends since 2017, you see that penetration among 35–54 year-olds is flat, and that usage among Americans 55+ actually went up, from 49% to 53% (the first time, by the way, that the majority of those 55 and older report using Facebook.)

No, the story is crystal clear: there has been a 22% decline in usage among Americans 12–34 since 2017, from 79% to 62%. In other words, while 82 million persons 12–34 indicated that they used Facebook in 2017, today that number is 65 million — a net loss of 17 million users.

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Of course, even in the older demographics, there may be significant movement. What looks like a flat trend 35–54 can disguise significant churn, as disgruntled users leave and are replaced in equal numbers by those new to the platform. But the 12–34 numbers are indeed notable, and represent an unmistakable turn away from Facebook among young Americans.

So, where did they go? First, it’s important to note that these 17 million young people didn’t migrate to a new service that they hadn’t already been using. In fact, when we look at the overall penetration of usage for the major social media brands among 12–34s, they all look fairly static — in fact, Twitter penetration also went down significantly over the past two years.

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Where these users went was not to a new service; instead, they simply began using other platforms that they were already on to a greater degree. For Facebook the company, certainly, their hope would be that these younger Facebook users would instead migrate to Instagram, which would still keep them within the clutches of the Facebook ecosystem. And, indeed, we do see evidence of this migration — but perhaps not to the extent to which Facebook would want.

One of my favorite questions from the Infinite Dial social media section is “Which social media brand do you use most often?” As you can see below, over the past four years, the percentage of 12–34s who said that Facebook was the brand they used most often has been cut neatly in half, from 58% to 29%. But while Instagram’s share in this question has increased considerably, so has that of Snapchat. Today, the percentage of 12–34s who say they use Facebook or Instagram the most is less than the percentage who said Facebook alone in 2015.

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So, what has happened here? Why has there been such a sharp decline in Facebook usage among 12–34s? And even if usage in older demos appears flat, are there other danger signs? To find out, we fielded an entirely separate project called The Social Habit, which combined a new national survey of online Americans ages 13 and up with qualitative research among young people who tell us they have either stopped using Facebook or are using it less.

First of all, it needs to be said: even though we have registered significant declines among young people in Facebook usage, it is still a significant brand with that age group. More than six in ten 12–34s use Facebook — but that is also true for Instagram and Snapchat. So for that majority of 12–34s who do use Facebook, why do they continue to enjoy the service? Without a doubt, Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO) is a significant driver, as these respondents told us:

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Still, despite that FOMO, 17 million fewer 12–34s now use Facebook than two years ago. And, it turns out, while we certainly registered a significant percentage of Facebook “quitters” in our Infinite Dial research, even that may have understated the issue. In the Social Habit, we asked all Facebook users if they were using the service more, less, or about the same amount of time as when they first began using the service. The results were clear — the percentage of people who say they are using Facebook more was 15% — nearly equal to the percentage of “quitters” at 14%. But nearly a third of Facebook users — still on the rolls as “active” — indicated that they are using the service less than they used to. In other words, the percentage of Facebook users who are either using the service less or not at all is now a combined 46% — approaching half of all Facebook users.

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Now, others have certainly reported declines in Facebook usage, and it is tempting to try to ascribe that decline to a given reason. But the truth, as ever, is more complex than that. We gave the people who indicated they are using Facebook less or not at all a list of reasons to explain their change in usage, and allowed people to both tell us if each reason applied, and also which was the most important reason. What we learned was that there is no “one reason” why people are changing their relationship with Facebook — there are several. As you can see from the graph below, rants/personal comments, negativity, politics, and concerns about privacy were all named by the majority of these users, and all to a nearly equal degree. But the rest of the listed reasons are also significant, with nearly half indicating that they are using other sites more, or that their friends have left. Over three in ten even said that they were using Facebook less because their parents or relatives were using the service — and I can tell you that this sentiment was not confined to 12–34 year-olds!

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Now, this is with the total sample — all ages. When we dig deeper into these numbers we see that different reasons surface to the top for different demographic groups. But make no mistake — many of these reasons are important to ALL age groups, and we saw no better examples of that than in the video qualitative interviews we conducted as a part of the Social Habit with young people who are using Facebook less.

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This perception of a toxic environment was registered not just by young Americans, but by users of all ages. We found an especially interesting split here between men and women, with nearly two-thirds of women agreeing that there was “too much negativity” on Facebook, and nearly half agreeing that they needed a break from Facebook for their mental health. But this does not mean that a significant percentage of men are immune from these feelings — over half also agreed that there was too much negativity on Facebook.

While we saw slightly less agreement among 13–34 year-olds on this, the majority of this age group agreed that they, like older Americans, are tiring of rants and excessive personal comments on Facebook, all of which contribute to the “toxic environment” cited earlier:

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Another interesting angle on Facebook’s decline can also be seen in the graph above. Privacy is clearly a major concern among Facebook users ages 35+. Both 35–54s and those over 55 are equally concerned, and to a large degree, about Facebook’s privacy issues. But young people are also concerned, and only to a slightly lesser degree. While fewer may cite privacy as a reason to use Facebook less, this may stem as much from a kind of resignation to the fact that nothing we do online is private, and Facebook is just one more example of this:

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So privacy and toxicity are two significant reasons why people might be using Facebook less, and in some cases, not at all. It is tempting to think about a decline in Facebook as a flight away from the service. But even that is an oversimplification. It might also be that a decline in Facebook among young people is less about Facebook as a product doing something wrong, and more about competitive products doing something right. In fact, when we listen to these respondents talk about services like Instagram, for example, it is clear that some part of this dynamic is simply that another product is serving their needs better:

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Indeed, the data bear this out. Note the high percentage of 13–34s who use Facebook less who simply indicate that they are enjoying other services more, perhaps (as the video above implies) because they allow alternate forms of expression. It also helps that they perceive that they can exhibit those alternate forms of expression in a forum that has yet to be infiltrated by their parents:

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We have been looking so far at ALL the reasons people who are “unfriending” Facebook have given for their change in behavior, but there is one more thing to look at: what is the MOST important reason? In other words, while all ages share concerns about toxicity, privacy, and who is and isn’t on Facebook, what is the main reason people are giving Facebook a thumbs-down? The answer is clear and simple:

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…it’s all of these. It’s too reductive to say that people are leaving due to a toxic environment, or because they are concerned about privacy. In truth, every age group has its own last straw, and they are all different.

Again, it must be said that Facebook remains the number one social media brand in America, and it isn’t going away any time soon, regardless of these data. Thus, it would be a complete exaggeration to say that these declines are something like a “death by a thousand paper cuts.” But it is also true to say that Facebook usage is eroding, and that erosion is occurring on multiple fronts.

With all of that said, Facebook remains the most popular social network in the US, and is both enormously profitable and enormously important in the fabric of American life. But our study implies that Facebook may be facing, in record time, the fate of other “legacy media” like newspapers and network television: becoming a medium for older people.

Download the complete Social Habit presentation and webinar here.

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Tom Webster

Written by

SVP, Edison Research. Co-author of The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer, The Social Habit, and other widely cited studies. Other half of @tamadear.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

Tom Webster

Written by

SVP, Edison Research. Co-author of The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer, The Social Habit, and other widely cited studies. Other half of @tamadear.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

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