I feel like many of us are semi-aware of the negative effect that social media can have on our psyche, but we use social media anyway because it’s too ubiquitous to ignore. I can find recipes, outfit ideas, and news articles in one convenient scroll. My friends and I hype each other up by commenting variations of ‘omg model 😍🤩’ on each others’ photos when we post. It’s where trends begin, where memes are shared, where secret beef is subtly hinted at in an Instagram story. Especially in COVID-19, social media feels like the most essential service that enables us to stay in the know while staying at home.
I’ve been on Instagram daily since 2012, a year after its creation. Assuming I have spent one hour on Instagram per day since I joined, that totals to … 2385 hours! The impact of this engagement on my time, energy, and health is non-trivial. While reflecting on my resolutions at the start of this year, I became mildly uncomfortable thinking about what that could have done to my mental health. My discomfort led me to my interest in taking a break from Instagram so I deactivated my account in January of 2021 and deleted the app from my home screen. The polaroid camera-looking app, a constant presence on my phone even before its 2016 redesign, was gone.
Cool. What now?
For the next week, Instagram was a phantom presence. I missed mindless tapping and scrolling; I no longer had anything to channel my restless energy towards. Every time I felt mildly bored or unhappy, I tapped back into the ‘Social’ section on my phone and then found myself swiping aimlessly around my phone when I couldn’t go to Instagram. I typed ‘Instagram’ into the search bar on my laptop and felt annoyed when I remembered that I locked myself out. I’d have to return my attention to my schoolwork or find some other way to mindlessly distract myself from an unpleasant feeling. Eventually, that neurotic habit faded away, and I was able to reflect on the difference between pre- vs. post-deactivation of my social media account.
One of my objections against deactivating my account was missing out on important opportunities and updates. TIME has reported that FOMO – the all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out on important news or opportunities – has been experienced by nearly three-quarters of young adults. News on Instagram moves quickly; you are not fast enough by yourself to keep up with everything. When I logged out, I missed several club application deadlines, events, and old classmates’ updates; but after a small feeling of disappointment, I found that I didn’t care as much as I thought I would. If I felt passionate about joining a club, I would locate application details myself instead of stumbling upon them on my feed. If I needed to buy something, I would find promotions on my own initiative. I talked more with the people who are active and present in my life and worried less about those who were not.
Maybe it’s my introversion that can’t stand the endless barrage of new information, but although I was exposed to more ideas, I was too tired to meaningfully engage with anything. From deactivating my account, I realized that when I am actually passionate and inspired, I seek out the opportunity, or the news, or the connection proactively. Social media provides an illusion of convenience – look how quickly you can learn about this topic, or find outfit inspiration, or stay updated on your classmates’ lives! However, attention is finite, and I felt that mine was stretched thin in so many directions. It was more convenient and less stressful to focus my attention on the people and pursuits that give me energy.
After the improvements in my attention, I noticed that my mood was more stable. I was surprised by this because I didn’t think of myself as someone whose self-esteem was affected by social media. I always thought of myself as someone who knew how to separate filtered images from reality. But I realized that I had this unconscious idea of life being a mostly positive experience for other people because social media doesn’t show anything else. It took me a while to realize that we are not meant to be happy all the time! I honestly didn’t recognize that until recently, and I felt like a failure for feeling that my life was falling apart.
Pastor Steven Furtick said it best: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” I was invested in other people’s perfect lives instead of my own, as I simultaneously wondered why I was so dull and boring in comparison. My mood could whiplash violently with someone else’s post, and I became someone I didn’t like on social media: someone who was constantly comparing, scrutinizing, and speculating on other people. It’s not good for anyone’s health, to talk and think so much about other people. Deleting Instagram certainly wasn’t a cure-all for my insecurities, but it did help me think of them less.
It’s been a few months since I disconnected from Instagram. You will think I sound like a boomer, but I don’t want to return to Instagram for a while. I will eventually since social media is incredibly fun, but I know now that social media use should not be mindless: social media has a profound grip on our mental well-being, and vigilance should be taken to prevent it from becoming overwhelming. When I return, I would immediately unfollow every person who has no relevance to my life, and every influencer who makes me feel even slightly negative about myself. I would focus on engaging more actively with the people and ideas I care about, in ways that feel authentic and good.
Carefully curating a mindful social media experience that enables us to be connected, inspired, and energized? That sounds like the way to go.