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Abstention reveals what social media displaces

Friday, November 09, 2018

LAWRENCE – Getting daily users to give up social media for weeks at a time? Difficult, at best. And, yes, some people who agreed to do so for a recent experiment fell off the wagon while they were supposed to abstain.

But the real finding of University of Kansas Professor Jeffrey Hall’s recent research paper is that when people have to do without social media, they end up surfing the web and engaging in activities they may be putting off, like work and housecleaning.

Hall, an associate professor of communication studies, has performed several studies trying to get at the phenomenon known as “displacement” – what we might be doing if social media weren’t always at our fingertips.

As Hall and his KU graduate student co-authors Rebecca Johnson and Elaina Ross write in a new paper published in the journal New Media & Society, they asked a group of paid adult volunteers, only one-third of whom were students, to abstain from social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat) for up to one month and to keep diaries of how many minutes they spent each day on 19 activities as well as how they felt each day.

They found that social media usage takes time away – not from virtuous activities we might imagine ourselves doing, such as having meaningful conversations with friends – but, rather, from working, surfing the web and cleaning house.

“What would you be doing if you weren’t using social media? Stuff you feel neutral about or wouldn’t enjoy doing anyway,” Hall said. “The end-of-day reports of well-being and quality of day show that more time spent working and cleaning house makes for a less pleasant day.”

The authors say the paper is “the first of its kind to test displacement through social media abstinence using an experimental and time diary design.”

The researchers did so by trying to entirely remove social media from the lives of their participants, who, in return for a cash reward, agreed to do so for one, two, three or four weeks. There was also a control group who maintained their normal daily social media habits.

Those who agreed to abstain also agreed to “friend” or “like” social media accounts created by the study team so that participants’ usage could be monitored. But even so, of participants who completed at least one week of study and seemed to be providing good data, 19 percent of them posted or liked something on social media or admitted to falling of the wagon, earning them a ticket to the sidelines of the study.

In the end, a month in the lives of 135 people, including both college students and community members, were studied. Their diaries were analyzed not only for what the abstainers filled their time with but how they felt about it – happy, bored, etc. – compared with people who continued to use social media without restriction.

So what do the results say about us?

“We make time for our priorities,” Hall said, “with or without social media. And, it seems that if we want to avoid doing things, we may turn to social media to fill that time.”

The bottom line? “Spending time on social media is not going to make your life a whole lot worse or a whole lot better,” Hall said, “because the things most strongly associated with having a good day and feeling good throughout the day – like sharing a meal or spending time with close friends and family – don’t seem to change whether people are off of social media.”

Despite all of the grave warnings of social displacement through social media, Hall said, “Don’t freak out. This is just the continuation of a cycle.

“People appear to be replacing the same sorts of behaviors they replaced when the internet became widely adopted,” he said. “Then and now, people are looking to media for some sort of escape or distraction. People have a tendency to worry that new media is so vastly different than old media, but it’s not. Social media is displacing the internet; the internet displaced television; television replaced comic books and cinema. It’s all part of the process.”