Kalley Huang reports on youth and technology, and Sheera Frenkel reports on social networking, both from San Francisco.
March 6, 2023Updated 11:15 a.m. ET
More than a decade ago, Qu’ana Underwood, then a middle school student in Philadelphia, joined Facebook . But as other social media platforms appeared, Facebook “became an afterthought,” she said.
Then last March, after Ms. Underwood posted photos of herself at a university formal on Instagram , she was suddenly flooded with Facebook notifications from relatives and friends she doesn’t normally keep in touch with. Her Instagram post had also appeared on her Facebook profile, prompting her Facebook friends to like and comment on it.
Ms. Underwood said she was mystified by what was happening, especially when every post or story she shared on Instagram ended up on Facebook — even though she couldn’t remember the last time she had posted there.
“What is going on?” Ms. Underwood, a 22-year-old behavioral health specialist in Nashville, said she had asked herself.
Like Ms. Underwood, other teenagers and young adults have discovered in recent months that they’ve been unusually active on Facebook — even though they hadn’t opened the app. Some were shocked, they said, because they hadn’t used Facebook for years and were hearing from Facebook friends they had forgotten about, with no idea how to stop their Instagram posts from winding up on the older social network.
The surge in Facebook activity is rooted in a new feature from Meta , which owns Facebook and Instagram. Last year, Meta introduced a prompt that popped up on Instagram when people posted a photo or story. The prompt asked Instagram users if they wanted to share their post to Facebook, too.
To make the prompt go away, users had to click a big blue button to agree to share their Instagram posts on Facebook, or a smaller hyperlink to opt out. Many people, including Ms. Underwood, clicked the more visible blue button — and then immediately forgot about it, according to interviews with more than a dozen Gen Z and millennial Instagram users. Reversing the setting requires clicking through multiple Instagram menus.
Qu’ana Underwood was flooded with Facebook notifications after posting a photo to her Instagram account.Credit...Evan Mattingly for The New York Times
“It feels so sneaky,” said Ashley LaBossiere, 28, a digital media manager in Canton, Ga., who has had trouble turning off the setting. “Is Facebook suffering so badly?”
Meta has long been concerned about losing teenagers and young adults to rivals like TikTok and Snapchat , especially since that audience is highly coveted by advertisers. Facebook, which Mark Zuckerberg created in 2004 while at Harvard, was aimed at college students in its early years but has struggled in recent years with an aging user base .
Last year, 17 percent of Facebook users were 18 to 24 years old, compared with 44 percent who were older than 45, according to Data.ai, an analytics company. In contrast, 28 percent of Instagram users were 18 to 24 and 33 percent were older than 45, while 39 percent of Snapchat users and 30 percent of TikTok users were 18 to 24.
To appeal to younger users, Instagram and Facebook have in recent years introduced features like Stories , which emulates a Snapchat feature by letting people post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. They also rolled out Reels , a TikTok-like feature that lets people create short videos.
Last year, Instagram engineers were told that Meta wanted more people to post from Instagram to Facebook, said three people involved with the project, who were not authorized to speak publicly. That led to the new prompt, which was designed so most users would give Instagram permission to permanently share their posts with Facebook, they said. The prompt was placed where thumbs typically fall on a screen, one of the people said.
Meta declined to comment on what had led to the prompt and its design. But the company said not all Instagram users received the prompt and acknowledged that some had to decline multiple times before Instagram stopped asking. Meta also said a software bug last year caused some users to see the prompt every time they posted on Instagram.
“We know that people enjoy cross-posting content to easily share with their friends and followers across our apps,” a spokeswoman for Meta, which also owns WhatsApp and Messenger, said in a statement.
Tech companies have long encouraged users to stay on their services by tweaking their products, said Tony Hu, who teaches product design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One example are the pop-up windows that people click once to accept all internet cookies, which collect their data and track them online, he said. Another is how Amazon made it easy to buy items with just one click , he said.
Referring to Meta’s prompt, Mr. Hu said, “Maybe they are just nudging people to share because that drives their viewership, ad revenue.”
For some teenagers and young adults, unintentionally posting on Facebook from Instagram has resulted in mild embarrassment and mad dashes to undo the sharing.
In January, said Ms. LaBossiere, the digital media manager, she rushed to delete a post about narcissistic mothers that she had shared on Instagram and had ended up on her Facebook profile, because she didn’t want her mother’s friends to see it.
Ms. LaBossiere considers herself tech savvy but has lost count of the times she has declined to share from Instagram to Facebook, only to accidentally do so again, she said.
“Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “That’s when I start feeling like I’m 100 years old.”
Mia Bramel, 23, a software engineer in Santa Clara, Calif., said she had deliberately kept her Instagram and Facebook accounts separate — only for the prompt to upend that. On Instagram, she said, she typically shares photos of nature and videos of herself practicing piano pieces. On Facebook, which she uses less frequently, she shares life updates like graduating from college.
“I always feel very aware of who is viewing anything,” she said. “I feel like the things that I post on Instagram are only really meant for the people who follow me. If it were on Facebook, it would feel really weird.”
But now a selfie or an “artistic and experimental” Instagram post sometimes winds up on Facebook. That makes it feel harder to “control” her social media presence, Ms. Bramel said.
Loren Cantor, a student and musician in Montreal, said his Instagram posts that show up on Facebook have helped him keep in touch with his grandmother and aunt.Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Others have embraced the sharing of Instagram posts on Facebook. Loren Cantor, 22, a student and musician in Montreal, said the new setting had been a “pleasant surprise” because it helped him keep in touch with family.
In 2011, Mr. Cantor joined Facebook, where his most active friends are his family. He joined Instagram in 2013, and his followers there are friends from school and from making music. When he started accidentally cross-posting, he said, he started hearing more from his grandmother and aunt.
“Facebook is a more family-oriented thing for the older generations who aren’t on these other apps,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s going on on Facebook.”