It’s 2 a.m. and you know the person you like is up. So you post a photo of your dark bedroom with the caption “Anyone up?” — just hoping they see it and message you. You know what I’m talking about. I’ve done it. My friends have done it.
The next morning, if the post worked, you delete it because it served its purpose. If it didn’t work, you’re embarrassed and definitely delete it. Either way, the post comes down. And any friends and followers who saw it the previous night are like, “Wait, where’d that post go?”
I have started to think of all these deleted social media posts that quietly disappear as phantom posts. Talking openly about them feels almost taboo. Once it’s gone, the phantom post can haunt your memory, like a ghost.
Phantom posts are a mystery. Some stay up for a few days or hours, or even only for a few minutes. But why? What do people get out of making a post, when they are just going to end up deleting it anyway? What’s happening in their minds between posting and deleting?
Turns out there’s actual psychological data on this phenomenon. Researchers from a non-profit called HopeLab found that teens who are lonely are more likely than others to report deleting something they posted or even taking down a whole account after having a personal conflict with someone.
So now I’m wondering what my phantom-posting friends think of this connection to being lonely.
“I’m worried about looking ugly on my feed.”
“I either look ugly, or I’m just bored of it,” my friend IS told me in a text, describing the posts she deletes. [Because my friends are speaking about pretty intimate matters, I’ll just refer to them by their initials.] IS is funny and blunt. “I usually delete stuff because I realize I’m better than what I post,” she said. “Like petty post[s], I realized I shouldn’t be doing all that like I should be positive and keep a clear mindset.”
“Petty posts” make up a large share of what I’ve seen posted and deleted — especially ones that target an individual but are worded indirectly. Maybe you’re angry at someone in your friend group, so you take a photo of yourself out with all your other friends except the one you’re mad at, so your estranged friend knows you’re having a good time with everyone else. The next day, you think better of it and press “delete.”
Another friend, SC, sees comparison as a major factor. “I can like a picture, post it and then soon delete it, because I see other girls’ [posts]… My picture is no longer good enough,” she said. And a third friend, CB, has been struck by the impact of time: “I stare at the picture too long and think I look ugly … I’m worried about looking ugly on my feed.”
What do researchers have to say about all this? HopeLab collected data from over 1300 young adults from age 14 to 22 using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Respondents were asked how often they feel a range of emotions: isolated, left out, a part of a group or even outgoing. In addition to using the Loneliness Scale, HopeLab also asked about social media habits and how social media makes young people feel.
“Loneliness at its core is kind of like a threat signaling,” said Senior Research Associate Emma Bruehlman-Senecal from HopeLab. “You can kind of think of it as alarm bells. [It’s a sign] that you need to connect … [that] our needs to relate to other people aren’t being adequately met.”
I told the researchers that all three of my friends said they deleted their posts because they felt insecure about how they looked.
“Insecurity is all about a sense of threat and a sense of not really being good enough,” said Bruehlman-Senecal. And when we feel that way, many of us seek reassurance and validation from an outside source, like social media.
But social media can sometimes deliver the opposite of what we’re searching for, like when SC feels bad about her own posts after she looks at the social feeds of other girls.
“[If] a picture doesn’t get as many likes, I feel the need to delete it … or if I see a picture is not getting comments, I see it as I don’t look nice [and] it upsets me. So I delete, because I see others getting lots of comments. For me personally, it is more of an insecurity issue,” she said.
So you post to feel better, get insecure about how you look, delete to make it go away — and end up feeling more alone.
For people of my generation who opened social media accounts right when adolescence was hitting, communicating through online platforms is second nature. But loneliness researchers warn that our reliance on social media may be harming us when we are most in need of emotional support.
“Social media isn’t the best venue for expressing your struggles and expressing your vulnerable side, and providing that type of support and real compassion to other people that they need when they’re struggling,” Bruehlman-Senecal said. “People who are feeling lonely are turning to social media to express themselves creatively to try to get some forms of support. But they’re not finding the support that they need there.”
A big part of being lonely is not seeing that other people may be going through the same things we are. And social media gets us focusing even more on ourselves. Think selfies. Think phantom posts. So what can we do to actually feel better?
Bruehlman-Senecal suggests getting engaged with others in a way that takes the focus off yourself. “Put the focus on other people, like doing acts of kindness can be helpful for reducing loneliness. And part of that may be because you’re taking some of the pressure and some of the spotlight off of yourself,” she said.