Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetJuly 10, 2023

The mysterious ‘glitch’ that makes it even harder to quit Instagram

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

For at least four years, Instagram users attempting to leave the app have been thwarted by a glitch. So why hasn’t it been fixed?

With an algorithm serving us a near infinite scroll of pictures and seconds-long videos of dazzling outfits, adorable pets and perfectly presented meals, it’s not hard to see why many of us are so captivated by our Instagram feeds.

Since its inception, Instagram’s aesthetically pleasing imagery has been juxtaposed by a decidedly ugly variety of side effects that come with using it. 

While the photo-based app is a valuable platform for self-expression and communication, numerous studies have found use of it is also associated with higher levels of anxiety, self-esteem issues, loneliness, depression, bullying, and diminished attention. These, along with concerns around data privacy and technology addiction have added to social media users’ reasons for getting rid of their accounts. But an apparent “glitch” on Instagram is hindering some people’s attempts to say goodbye to the app.

For intermittent Instagram user Tess*, the cognitive impacts of social media on her ability to focus have led her to quit all platforms, including Instagram. 

“I’ve had a lot of trouble with all social media platforms and regulating my use of them,” she says. “I really notice when I go back on how frazzled, distracted and fragmented it makes my brain feel – I notice the impact on my mental state immediately.” 

Studies have attributed use of Instagram with higher levels of anxiety, self-esteem issues, loneliness, depression, bullying, and diminished attention. (Image: Getty Images)

Tess deactivated her Instagram account a few years ago, but reactivates it every now and then to get in touch with people who she can’t contact otherwise, before deleting the account again. “I really like knowing that my account is gone,” she says. “No one can message me, no one can see any of my posts – I just don’t exist there any more and that really helps me to just feel fine about not being logged on.”

Just over a week ago, she reactivated her account to let friends know she wouldn’t be contactable on Facebook Messenger any more as she’d been locked out. As usual, once she’d been in touch with those she needed to, she deactivated her account again. Deactivating your account essentially throws an invisibility blanket over it – it’s not permanently gone, rather removed until you decide to revive it in future.

But just minutes after deactivating, she received a message from Instagram saying, “As you requested, your Instagram account has been automatically reactivated”. The problem was she had made no such request. What made the situation worse is that Instagram limits the number of times you can deactivate to once a week, meaning she was stuck on the app, and all its dopamine-inducing distractions, for another seven days.

The messaging Tess received which reads: As you requested, your Instagram account has been automatically reactivated
The message Tess received after deleting her Instagram. (Image: Supplied)

Immediately after her account had been reactivated, Tess found herself falling back into her old habits. “It’s embarrassing to admit – it feels like in some respects, this is a personal responsibility issue,” she says. “But the thing is, I know this is a problem and so the thing I did to fix it, which worked really well, was to deactivate it.”

And it seems Tess isn’t the first Instagram user with this experience. Scores of comments from users on Reddit describe near identical experiences – and read chronologically, they tell the story of a problem that has gone unfixed and unacknowledged by the company for at least four years.

Four years ago, a Reddit user who had recently deactivated their Instagram account wrote, “I recently realised that my account reactivated itself yesterday and I have no idea how as I never did that…I realised via a friend who told me she had seen my account visible…now Instagram is not letting me deactivate it again.”

One year ago a Reddit user who had evidently removed their account to help work through a relationship break-up commented: “This just happened to me…I didn’t want to see shit about my ex being posted by mutual friends as this break up has been hard…I hate Instagram”. For others, the glitch had apparently been a recurring problem: “It’s happened to me three times already,” wrote another user. “I’m so annoyed. And no one will respond to my concern, it’s like their customer service is nonexistent. So annoying.” 

Others hadn’t seen the email notification from Instagram and had instead been told by friends that their accounts, which they thought had been deactivated, were in fact still very much active. “I found out from a friend that it’s still visible. It got reactivated on its own,” wrote one user. Comments outlining foiled attempts to leave the app for mental health reasons are plentiful.

Four months ago, a comment on the same forum wrote, “This is still happening. Doesn’t look like [they’re] gonna fix it”. And just one month ago, “This happened to me twice, I thought in the first week it was by mistake but this time I had deactivated properly but it still got reactivated. How come they can’t fix this even after a year[?]”.

Much has been written about the difficulties that can come with attempting to delete social media profiles – whether it be TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or beyond. Just last week, Meta, the company that owns Instagram and Facebook, launched Threads, a rival platform to Twitter. What many users – who signed up out of curiosity – failed to realise is you can’t delete your Threads account without also deleting your Instagram account. And it’s very, very hard to delete your Instagram account.

Social media companies need to be careful to prevent users from accidentally deleting their accounts, but studies have shown the hurdles they put in place are numerous. This ranges from an interface that makes it difficult to find deletion options, using shame or guilt to change users’ minds during the process, or including links that don’t work – essentially tricks by social media corporations to prevent users leaving a platform and taking all their valuable data with them.  

These design choices are called “dark patterns”, explains Andrew Chen, research fellow with Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. This is “a design choice that makes users do things that they didn’t mean to, or makes it really hard for them to do certain things that the designers don’t want them to do. There is growing awareness of this type of problem and there is legislation in several countries to try and combat it.”

Meta did not respond to questions about its knowledge of this reactivation problem, and whether it was intentional or a glitch. In this case, “if it is genuinely just a glitch then it wouldn’t be a dark pattern – dark patterns are intentional,” says Chen. But, he adds, “given that it’s been several years and they have chosen not to fix it, I’m inclined to think that it’s not just a glitch as it benefits them to have active users.”

Instagram has a chequered record when it comes to privacy concerns. In 2021, Instagram was described as the most invasive platform among a list of apps that collect and share users’ data, with the study finding that it collects 79% of its users’ personal data to share with third parties.

Abby Damen, communications and campaigns adviser at Consumer NZ, echoes this with the term “sludge” – a more broadly applied version of “dark patterns”, which includes “anything that makes it hard for users to make decisions that don’t support a business’s objectives”.

“Most people with social media accounts would agree that creating a profile is an easy, seamless process,” she says. “But try and do something that’s at odds with the companies’ objectives – like deactivating your account – and the process may suddenly become confusing or difficult.” 

Studies have shown the various hurdles social media companies put in place to thwart users’ attempts to leave. (Image: Getty Images)

In this case it’s possible, she says, that Instagram has deliberately incorporated sludge into the process to deactivate accounts. “This practice is not illegal, but under the Consumer Guarantees Act, businesses must exercise reasonable care and skill when providing their services,” she says. “A user may deactivate their account to protect their privacy, manage their mental health, or simply attempt to put an end to doom scrolling – and we think it’s unfair to put additional barriers in their way.”

And then there are instances where “people need to deactivate their account for even more serious reasons,” says Tess. “This issue must go against some kind of right that you have to control your digital presence online – our right to privacy and our right to control what of ourselves is online, it’s just so important.” 

In response to questions from The Spinoff about the Instagram deactivation issue,  privacy commissioner Michael Webster emphasised social media platforms’ privacy obligations. 

“The general rule under the Privacy Act is [that] an organisation can only hold information about us for a particular purpose, and when that purpose runs out they should stop holding that information. A person who requests to deactivate their account expects that choice to be honoured, and that is a reasonable expectation. If there is a technical issue with the deactivation of accounts, which contain personal information, then Instagram should resolve this swiftly.”

While Netsafe hasn’t received any complaints about unwanted reactivation on Instagram, chief online safety officer Sean Lyons said it might  clash with a new legal principle that has developed overseas, “the right to be forgotten” – meaning people have the right to have information about them removed from the internet in some instances. Some have tied the ability to delete or deactivate accounts to this right. While the principle is established in the EU and the Philippines, in New Zealand privacy law there is no right to be forgotten.

As it stands, privacy commissioner Webster believes our current regulatory settings might not be strong enough to protect New Zealander’s privacy online, meaning there’s plenty of room for strengthening our privacy laws within the online environment, and there are plenty of international developments to look to for guidance. “Privacy has been, and will continue to be, under threat,” he says. “We need to continually evolve our legal protections to stay ahead of the curve.” 

*Last name withheld for privacy reasons.

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