It’s no secret that social media isn’t exactly always good for us. We already know this. We know, deep down, that constantly consuming information about other people’s lives isn’t healthy. We know that it can create an unhealthy relationship with our phones, and can create unrealistic expectations that we place upon ourselves about how we think we should be living our lives. We know that it can cause stress, anxious feelings, and contribute negatively to existing mental health issues. We know that it can affect our relationships in countless ways.
And yet, despite knowing all this, we still keep scrolling.
A lot of people will justify their social media addictions by pointing out all the good that can come from social media – the awareness it can raise for social injustices and important causes. Social media can even start campaigns for social justice in of itself – you only have to look at the hashtags #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter to see that. Social media can help us connect with others and provide community for individuals that might otherwise be isolated. It can provide inspiration and a creative platform for artists. It can help people elevate their businesses to the next levels and market themselves.
All of the above is completely true – there is no denying this. The above hashtags have brought about incredible awareness of important causes and brought about real social change. Social media allows people to talk about things which are important and it is pretty much essential now to have social platforms as a business or as someone trying to start their own business. However, all of these good reasons to be on social media do not eradicate the addictive and damaging effect it can have for the average person using it. Because the average person is not a business or a charity or a political activist. Yet the majority of people do use social media in their everyday lives, and it is time that the impact of this on our mental health and wellbeing is really taken seriously.
Recently, I decided to take a break from social media. I did not delete my accounts, but I did delete the apps off my phone. I deleted Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For me, Instagram felt like the most harmful, as it was the one I was spending the most time on. I would go as far to say it was an addiction. I would look at Instagram in the morning, in the evening, and all through my day. I would often click on it as a default, a force of habit. This became embarrassingly obvious when, about 5 minutes after I deleted the app from my phone, I went to click on it again and instead ended up on the app that had taken its place in the order of my homepage. I was so used to just clicking there, it had truly become an unconscious thing for me to just visit the app.
I justified my Instagram usage in that the only people I chose to follow were either my friends, or accounts which I found inspiring and uplifting. People who posted inspirational captions and informative pieces. People who posted beautiful photos, but I felt they were authentic. A few months prior to this, I had deleted a lot of the people who were constantly showing up on my feed who I felt were contributing negatively to my mental health – the drop-dead gorgeous models who were constantly on a beach on Tahiti. That kind of thing.
Yet even that wasn’t enough. Even following people who seemed more ‘real’ to me was still providing me with a feed of images and captions that were only showing snippets of someone’s life. The highlight reel. I still felt like I could never compare against these awesome people who were doing awesome things. Because that is one of the problems with an app like Instagram. We feel like we are getting glimpses into the lives of the people we follow, and so its easier than ever to compare ourselves and our lives to those of the influencers we look up to. We’re already a generation of underpaid, anxious and directionless young people. Adding this to the mix is a tipping point.
Even if you look beyond the insecurities that stem from the comparison game we play on social media, just the sheer bombardment of images and content I was receiving all the time suddenly didn’t feel right. Even if the images and the captions are positive, I’m still constantly receiving information about a myriad of things and then trying to process that. One minute I will see an image of someone on a beach whilst they are backpacking in South America, the next minute I will see an infographic on food groups and nutrition, the next a post about summer style. It’s completely overwhelming and whilst I’m no biologist, I’m pretty confident we are not designed to cope well with such an influx of information and images on a constant basis.
Back in the day, a large proportion of the content we consumed would be long form. We would read a magazine article, or read a novel. Short form content existed, but it existed in the form of a short news story in the newspaper or something similar to this. Now, we are constantly scrolling our way through lots and lots of snippets of varying information from wildly different sources. This constant bombardment made me feel so overwhelmed.
I felt overwhelmed by pressure. Overwhelmed by goods to buy. Overwhelmed by lights and colour and angles and contours and infinity swimming pools and videos of kettlebell exercises. I was getting physical waves of anxiety and adrenaline in my body and whilst a lot of things could have been causing this, I knew that social media wasn’t helping. So I just deleted it. I took a break and removed myself from the situation.
And you know what? Surprise, surprise. It helped.
My little ‘detox’ gave me a fresh perspective on life. In work, I felt more focused and productive because I wasn’t being distracted by notifications. In my personal life, I felt I could give more of myself to my relationships and actually be present in conversations. And above all, I felt I could give myself space to breathe, and to be me. I didn’t feel this constant looming insecurity, because I wasn’t constantly comparing my body or my life to that of a perfect stranger. It wasn’t a magic pill that fixed all of life’s problems, but within just one day of not looking at Instagram or any of the other apps I used, I felt all of the above. It sounds very obvious, but I felt more present. Because I was. I was actually in the room and in my surroundings, rather than absorbed by everything else going on in the world, through a screen in my hand.
I re-downloaded the app briefly, when I was in Berlin. I took some photos of the EastSide Gallery and put them on my Instagram stories. But I soon found myself deleting it again. I made some incredible friends in Berlin and it felt wonderful to simply enjoy their company and enjoy the city we had all found ourselves in. It almost felt novel, in this day and age. We went to a Berlin club where we weren’t allowed to take photos or videos. And I didn’t feel like I was missing out. How could I? I felt liberated and free. Free from the need to tune into everyone else’s life. And free from the need to tell everyone else about mine.
I have found that too often, we have started to see people’s worth through the lens of their social media account. I have known people to mention a person they have met, and instead of saying about what they are like as a person or what they are interested in, they have said, ‘oh yeah, she has like 6,000 followers’. Someone with followers in the thousands seems to be the most desirable people to hang out with. Never mind if you’re kind, or fun, or generous. I have a friend who also recently deleted Instagram, and she has found that since deleting it only about 3 of her friends have stayed in touch with her. She said to me in a recent message that “it’s actually really sad that we need confirmation of people’s existence via their activity through a screen”. Whereas we used to have to actually talk to people to know what they are up to, now we already know. This can be both a wonderful and a terrible thing. Whilst it may feel exciting to know what other people are up to even when they are not in the room with us, it also means we already think we know everything about a person. It cuts out the process of getting to know someone and see how they are really doing, which are important parts of building a relationship.
I’m not naive enough to claim that we need to all boycott the social media giants and go back to the “good old days”. I know that there is no going back. This is the world we live in now. This is the way we often consume the news and other forms of media, and it’s the way we keep in touch with our friends and get to know new friends. It’s the way we learn about everything from how to do our makeup to the best places to go to on our holiday. And it’s also the way that we can campaign and raise awareness for the things that are bigger than us.
However, I think it is time that we realised that constantly consuming a feed of information can really cause detriment to our mental health. Because these apps are designed to be so addictive, we often don’t realise it’s having such a negative effect until we become aware that looking at Instagram is the first thing we do when we wake up, or until we start having heart palpitations from the pressure of it all, or until we aren’t sleeping at night because we are worrying about the fact we aren’t ‘enough’. Sometimes, all this can happen and we still don’t realise the effect it is having. We still don’t put two and two together, because social media is so ingrained in our lives.
When we make this realisation, we can empower ourselves to look after our mental health and to make changes to our social media usage and the ways in which we consume it. I believe that deleting the apps off of our phones for a little while – even if it’s just for a week – can have such a hugely positive impact as it allows you to step away from it all and get that all-important perspective. Sometimes you don’t realise you were struggling for air until suddenly you can breathe again.
A few weeks after I deleted my social media apps off of my phone, I downloaded them again. I decided my detox was over, and I was ready to revisit them and start using them in a more conscious way. I don’t look at them nearly as much as I used to anymore, and when I find myself scrolling or getting too involved in something, I pull away. I’ve turned off all the notifications, so nothing is drawing me in and I only go on the apps now if I choose to. I’ve found that giving myself that space to just be me and do things I enjoy without tuning into a bunch of apps has meant I can now have them on my phone and not be drawn to them. I can use them more mindfully. And the best part is, I know I can always delete them again if I need to. It’s not always an easy thing. As mentioned already, these apps are designed to be addictive. But having the break of a few weeks liberated me from the need to always be tuned in. It liberated me from the need to be validated by my social media activity and from the need to constantly tune into other peoples lives. I realised that the world would not stop turning without it. It did not stop turning, but it did, in fact, seem to move a little bit slower. And I quite liked that.