Despite all of the headlines and the immense scrutiny Facebook has faced in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social network seems to have escaped its biggest PR challenge to date largely unscathed.

But is that really the case?

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center between May 29 and June 11, more than half (54%) of Facebook users over the age of 18 have adjusted their privacy settings in the past year.

What’s more, more than two-fifths (42%) say that they have taken at least several weeks off from the social network and over a quarter (26%) claim to have deleted the Facebook app from their phone in the past year.

More and more Facebook users are taking steps to distance themselves from the social network.

All told, Pew research Andrew Perrin notes that “some 74% of Facebook users say they have taken at least one of these three actions in the past year.”

If those figures aren’t worrisome enough to Facebook and marketers who use the world’s largest social network to reach consumers, Pew found that younger users are disengaging from Facebook at much higher rates than older users.

For example, Pew’s poll found that in the last 12 months, a whopping 64% of users aged 18 to 29 have made changes to their privacy settings and 44% of these users have deleted the Facebook app from their phone.

Pew’s data seems to conflict with metrics reported by Facebook itself. As The Motley Fool’s Evan Niu pointed out, Pew’s figures are hard to square with the number of daily active users Facebook reports.

That number has remained fairly consistent recently and is commonly cited as evidence that, despite all the negative headlines about Cambridge Analytica, most Facebook users don’t actually care about privacy, even if they say they do.

Facebook is in real trouble: what it could mean for marketers

The impact on marketers

Is it possible that Pew’s survey has captured early evidence of a trend change? If so, while Facebook might point to the high percentage of users who reported adjusting their privacy settings as evidence that its privacy functionality is working as intended, Pew’s data suggests that, Cambridge Analytica-related or not, a meaningful number of consumers are at the very least “changing their relationship with Facebook.”

This could impact marketers in a number of ways.

First and most obviously, if more and more users are taking extended breaks from Facebook or deleting the app entirely, marketers could find that the number of consumers they can reach on the world’s largest social network declines. They may also find it more difficult to engage at the same rate, something they have already been grappling with thanks to algorithm changes Facebook has implemented in the past year.

But even the large number of survey respondents who reported updating their privacy settings could have a meaningful impact on marketers. That’s because some of those privacy settings affect marketing activity on Facebook.

For example, numerous privacy settings relate to ads. These settings allow users to turn off interest-based ads that rely on data collected from third-party websites and apps, to turn off ads that appear off of Facebook, and to prevent the pairing of their social actions with ads. Additionally, Facebook gives users the ability to remove interests it has identified, which can be used to serve interest-based ads.

If enough users change these settings, advertisers could find that their ability to run highly-targeted, granular campaigns becomes impaired.

What next? WhatsApp (and Instagram)

Of course, even if Pew’s data is indicative of a new trend that isn’t favorable for marketers, thanks to Facebook’s its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp, marketers will likely still have plenty of opportunities to reach consumers through the company and its growing portfolio of ad offerings.

Instagram is reportedly exploring the creation of a standalone shopping app, while WhatsApp just launched the WhatsApp Business API, which makes it possible for marketers to reach consumers through the widely-used messaging platform. Instagram recently celebrated reaching 1 billion monthly active users, with WhatsApp hitting the 1.5 billion mark at the beginning of this year – so marketers will have no shortage of users to target.

If trends like this are any indication, consumers will find it hard to escape Facebook’s reach unless they break up entirely with the company and all of its services – something that one day might happen, but clearly not overnight.

To make sure you’re keeping on top of the latest trends in social media marketing, register for Econsultancy’s free social media webinar on 20th September.