In February of 2016, I did the unthinkable for most millennials: I quit social media, specifically Instagram. My account is technically still active, but I haven’t opened the app since the day I decided to detox. I also haven’t gone online to look at my stream, stalk an ex, or even to check out what a friend is up to. I am 100% disconnected, and since this is a rather unlikely choice for someone of our generation, I thought I’d share some insight into what I’ve learned as a result.
Lead image and image on this slide via Getty Images
Why I Quit
My life looks pretty different from the lives of most of my friends. I'm not sure I ever want to get married, and normal domestic activities like furniture shopping make me break out in hives. (I had a boyfriend who once tried touring me around homes in the Palisades; by the time we finished, I had acquired an angry rash). I don’t know why I’m this way, but when you reach a certain age you learn to own these personality quirks as a part of what makes you unique to the world; however, something about Instagram—and its endless stream of life milestone announcements—never failed to make me feel inadequate, alienated and depressed about my choices.
Couple this persistent experience with that of having a few friends who are so completely Instagram obsessed that it’s impossible to converse normally, enjoy a non-photo based activity in their presence, or even ride safely in their car as they check Instagram while driving, and I just couldn’t hang anymore. The whole phenomenon began to feel icky to me, especially as my feed transformed from being a place where friends shared in-the-moment experiences to a professional branding tool for what were formerly ordinary humans. No longer were the people I knew inviting me into their daily lives. Instead, they had begun staging photo shoots, angling for invites to events just for the Instagram opp and working full-time to ensure that the “right” people followed them and commented on their photos. Watching them go to such great lengths for "likes" felt uncomfortable, and losing the real-life enjoyment of quality time we used to share became increasingly frustrating.
Finally, I’m an introvert, so showboating isn’t my happy place. I would rather shave off my eyebrows than get on stage in front of a group of people, and performing on this digital stage felt only moderately more comfortable. When I initially signed up for Instagram, I didn’t realize I was signing up to create the “Erin Nicole” lifestyle magazine, and I also didn’t realize I had signed up to compete for life validation through the “likes” of people who barely knew me in the flesh, if at all.
The Instagram Effect
As it turns out, I’m not totally crazy when it comes to feeling this way. According to this Slate article, studies have shown that “the three things that correlate most strongly with a self-loathing screen hangover are basically the three things that Instagram is currently used for: loitering around others’ photos, perfunctory like-ing, and “broadcasting” to a relatively amorphous group.” This was a less problematic issue for Instagram's social media predecessor, Facebook, because you receive "more explicit and implicit cues of people being happy, rich, and successful from a photo than from a status update.”
Another issue with Instagram use is the FOMO phenomenon. This Wired article explains how experientialism has replaced materialism recently because of social media (a positive occurrence), but how as a result we now compare our experiences to those of others in much the same way earlier generations may have compared houses or cars, and it's causing just as much stress. In other words, while it’s still great that we’re choosing Coachella over Bentleys, we’re feeling just as bad about missing out on Coachella as we would have formerly felt about driving a 30-year-old junker.
What’s worse, before social media, you knew people who, for example, drove a car that was better than yours, but you also knew people who drove cars that were worse than yours. This gave you perspective. Now, everyone edits their lives so that it looks as though every single person you know is having better experiences than you are, in one way or another. You may understand, rationally, that this isn’t true, but you still respond emotionally to the deceptive information you’re receiving via your Instagram feed.
I would also argue that materialism, and comparing ourselves to others in terms of material wealth, hasn't exactly been eradicated. While I can feel jealous of all that the Kardashian-Jenner clan experiences on the regular, I'm also jealous of their massive homes, insane wardrobes and on and on it goes.
My Experience In The Dark: The Pros
Here are the four biggest benefits of my Instagram detox:
I’m happier. I just am. There is no gray area here. Ignorance truly is bliss; I no longer have any clue how amazing the lives of all the people I know are, and this leaves me to focus on how amazing my life is (or isn’t, which just means focusing on myself measured against myself, and not others).
I was never a crazy Instagram stalker, but occasionally I would "rabbit hole" and end up in places like my ex-boyfriend’s wife’s Instagram. Even though I am immensely grateful our relationship ended, I still felt terrible seeing images of their life together. Now, my ex-boyfriends live exactly where they're meant to live—in my past.
I’m more present in the moment. In fact, I’m now rarely on my phone at all when I’m at dinner, or a party, or enjoying quality time. Mindfulness is a buzzy idea as of late, and I have seen marked improvements in my overall happiness as a result of simply living in the moment.
I reach out to friends more often. Without Instagram, I find myself actually missing people. Now that I don’t see my friends' kids every two seconds in photos, I actually end up sort of dying to visit them in person. For me, this is preferable, as I’m now creating my own memories instead of just passively observing those of others.
My Experience In The Dark: The Cons
Here are the four biggest drawbacks to my Instagram detox:
Let’s be honest—being offline in 2016 is a lot like living in an isolation tank. I’m pretty sure people think, at best, that I’m living the most boring life ever and, at worst, that I recently met an untimely death. I caught up with a friend recently who said, with a great amount of surprise, “You’re doing all these cool things! They should be on Instagram!” Which read as “I thought you were on the floor of your apartment in the fetal position this whole time.” Or dead.
This is true in business, too. I’m told by my writing manager that I could book more jobs if I built up a social media presence. Living in a world in which it’s necessary for a writer of words to be prolific and proficient in the art of selfies is depressing, but it’s reality. These days, your Instagram profile is more important to some employers than your resume or actual achievements. Not having an online presence is definitely a career handicap.
Also, I wasn’t made to feel bad by every photo in my stream; many (many, I promise!) of them, I loved seeing. I really liked sharing in the successes of my friends this way, being privy to a goofy moment or cool experience they’d had and so forth. Since I can’t possibly reach out and ask all of them for personal photo feeds, I do feel like I’m missing out on a lot of good stuff.
If nothing else, Instagram is a great scrapbooking tool. It allows you to look back on the year and reminisce with a great amount of ease. I’m thinking of using Bonjournal as an alternative for this purpose (an app meant for recording travel experiences as a private, digital scrapbook) which falls far more within my comfort zone than does Instagram. The memories aren’t for people I’ve never met, after all. They’re for me.
How To Do A Less Dramatic Detox
I highly suggest everyone try taking a break from Instagram, even if it's just for a few days. It takes some time to detox, so if you do try it, you may find your anxiety spiking at first. This will pass, but you have to ride the wave to the other side. Away from the app, I think you will eventually notice higher levels of appreciation for wherever you are and whomever you’re with at any given moment.
Some studies have shown that the things that make you feel bad on Instagram are things you actually want in your own life. I’m not so sure this is true, because while seeing photos of a friend’s new house in the Palisades somehow makes me feel sad, house hunting in the Palisades makes me break out in hives. That said, I believe if you don’t want to quit social media altogether but do find yourself occasionally experiencing negative emotions as a result of its use, evaluating the ‘why’ of those feelings may potentially create a more positive result in your life.
Also, since Instagram is just a highlight reel of your life, it might be more helpful to consider the posts that elicit the most joy and truly live them more often. For example, if you only post travel photos, travel more. If you only post photos with your boyfriend, you probably enjoy your experiences with him more than anything else you do. This is just a theory, but it’s worth testing out.
Will I Re-Join Instagram?
Probably not. I just don’t miss it. The only circumstances around which I even think about re-joining Instagram are professional, and I’m just not sure the potential benefits warrant the effort.
I did, however, recently get a one-hour sales pitch on Snapchat that has me somewhat curious about whether or not I would consider it a positive addition to my life. Many of the things I dislike about Instagram are not a part of Snapchat. For one, Snaps are much more difficult to edit past the point of resembling reality than an Instagram post. Also, you can choose to share a snap with just one person as opposed to your entire “following". And because the images disappear, you can’t log on to the app to pass judgment on a person based on the content they’ve created (not all of which may have been heavily pre-planned or well thought out). All of this feels more organic and less icky to me. Plus, my ex-boyfriends (whom tend to be older than me) likely won't pop up within the app as they'd sooner be able to cure cancer than figure out how Snapchat works.
While I’m not sure I want to detract from my newfound in-the-moment enjoyment to record a Snap (and apply a filter, write the accompanying copy, et cetera), joining Snapchat just might be a happy compromise between ceasing to exist digitally and continuing to live physically. To be continued...