Facebook privacy concerns prompt ‘virtual identity suicides’

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Concerns over online privacy are leading Facebook users to commit "virtual identity suicide" by deleting their Facebook accounts, according to new scientific research.

A survey of around 300 Facebook users and 300 quitters of the social networking site by Austrian psychologists at the University of Vienna assessing what motivated them to use or abandon Facebook revealed an emerging counter-movement against social networking.

Among those saying they were quitting Facebook, almost half were leaving because of privacy concerns. Others said that the shallow nature of online relationships and feelings that they were becoming addicted to Facebook were reasons for abandoning their virtual social lives, according to the research on users and quitters from 47 countries.

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Facebook quitters were more likely to be older males who displayed higher Internet addiction scores, the research led by Dr Stefan Stieger found.

"Although the Facebook quitters of the present sample represented only a very small amount of all Facebook users, many of them seemed to be concerned about privacy to such an extent that it outweighed perceived advantages of Facebook and eventually led them to quit their virtual Facebook identity," Stieger and his co-authors said in an article entitled "Who Commits Virtual Identity Suicide?"published on Wednesday.

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With 1.16 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world, followed by Twitter and MySpace. Over half of these log on every day (699 million).

Recent high-profile controversies over online privacy such as the NSA surveillance scandal and Wikileaks have prompted users to reconsider their online presence and what it can reveal about them, however, with many deciding to remove their accounts committing "virtual identity suicide."

"Given high profile stories such as WikiLeaks and the recent NSA surveillance reports, individual citizens are becoming increasingly more wary of cyber-related privacy concerns," said Brenda Wiederhold,the editor-in-chief of the journal "Cyberpsychology,Behavior and Social Networking". in which the article was published.

The phenomenon has not been lost on some enterprising firms looking to facilitate the quitting process, with applications such as The Suicide Machine and Seppukoo assisting the "suicide," caused as a result of getting fed up with online social interaction, the authors' said.

"Committing virtual identity suicide is — in our view — not connected to a state of increased psychological distress, as it is typical for suicides, but rather to a deep dissatisfaction with some facets of social networking sites such as privacy and peer-group pressure to be online."

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Facebook declined to comment on the University of Vienna survey.

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