19 January 2021
After having social media for two years, I started to hate it. At thirteen, I had a solid idea of the person I wanted to be. Plain-spoken and genuine, well-read, and disciplined. The issue with Instagram was that it was so easy to feel on top of the world that I never tore myself away to do anything that mattered.
It was easy to try and justify it– “addictive behavior runs in the family, plus everyone else uses it”– but the bottom line was that I spent about four hours a day, twenty-five percent of my waking time, on Instagram. I had a pattern of not starting homework until nine at night and going to bed exhausted and telling myself that I would do better tomorrow.
It wasn’t all bad– you could start conversations by DMing somebody a meme, and soon friends of friends became the people you saw every weekend. Every October, students all over the nation cackled over the same jokes (illicitly, I guess) derived from PSAT questions, much needed after three hours of feeling like an absolute dunce. And the magic algorithm showed me things I liked before I knew I liked them. Minimalist art made out of bare pencil lines, city photography, quotes from, like, Socrates that make you go, “Well………wait a minute.”
When I deleted my account I was laying in bed, and had been agonizing over a caption for a picture of my face for twenty minutes. I was trying to predict the reaction of every person I knew. What if my best friend would think it was try-hard but not tell me, and what if my ex’s friends sent it to the group chat and they had a long, cackle-worthy conversation over it. I hoped the girls who I never spoke to in real life but who I exchanged Instagram comments with on every single occasion that one of us posted would take the time to comment the classic “ur so beautiful u could run me over with a jeep and i’d say thanks”, and that the boy who had sat in front of me in seventh-grade science wouldn’t feel embarrassed for me.
The big thing I noticed after deleting my Instagram in October was that I became more involved in my own life, because there was no longer an excuse not to be. During the four-hours-a-day era, social media was the first and last part of my day, with dozens of check-ins in between. The neuroscience behind social media and gambling is one and the same. The algorithm leaves you unsatisfied most of the time on purpose– lever-pressing lab rats who only occasionally receive a reward for their efforts are most likely to abandon other activities, including eating and sleeping. Life moves quickly on social media, and it leaves you too many rabbit holes to fall down. Look! It’s a beekeeper from Texas who handles her bugs without a suit, and here’s a guy who likes to do parkour over the gap between twenty-story buildings, and that’s the prettiest girl I’ve seen today– until I was paying most of my time and attention to other people’s lives, coming back to mine mostly just to shower and grab some dinner.
I started to read more with the free time I had, and the pace feels more natural. With Instagram, I always felt like I was always stressing, trying to touch the bottom of the ocean. You can see all the parts of someone they want you to see –their clothes, their makeup, their pretty house and the wholesome, funny moments they have with their friends– but it’s still impossible to have a true human connection, because there’s no candor. You can edit and ponder over something as long as you like before releasing it, and on a platform as unforgiving and unforgetting as social media, you’ll have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t. The rewarding parts of human interaction — namely seeing a smile or an attractive person– release dopamine the same way cocaine does, and since these are so easy to come by on social media, you can’t stop scrolling. But the satisfaction and the moment of self-reflection that comes after making a friend or a connection never comes: you can’t touch the bottom of the ocean, because most people in their right mind (your preferred candidates when it comes to new friends or role models, hopefully) aren’t going to put something on the Internet before they’ve edited out anything that could be used against them. Being obsessed with someone who you know off of social media is like loving a song when you’ve only heard the KidzBop version.
Powerful fiction, on the other hand, is about showing you that there is always more to who you can become, rather than cutting off the horrible and the hideous. Holden Caulfield had to be sad before he was able to have hope again, and Tom Sawyer did what we all wanted to do when we were kids, running away to become a pirate before rising from the dead, and that guy Winston Smith, from 1984… totalitarianism iffy, got it. Books are all about touching the bottom of the ocean. Writers mull over books for years so they can tell you what it’s like to be a different person, and they have to include the doubtful details that are so hard to come by on social media– it would be pretty awful to write and read three hundred pages about how nothing ever goes wrong. And I found that the less social media I consumed, the less FOMO I felt. I wasn’t scrolling on my phone at midnight anymore, because the break from dopamine let me act upon my feelings about social media.
I still have my SnapChat and TikTok accounts (both are apps where you’re not constantly on display, like you are on Instagram) and I re-download the apps sometimes, like an old lady excited to see what the kids are up to. During the first few days, I always brush off the reasons why I distanced myself from social media. But by the end of the week, the fatigue of lever-pressing sets in, and I start my cycle over again. Sometimes I wish I still had my Instagram –I miss the contact– but I would recommend temporarily deleting the app and getting some distance from social media any day.