Updated: Feb 16
By: Cecilia Pou
It took less than 24 hours for the dreaded question “why can’t I find your Instagram?” to be asked.
The question came from an acquaintance trying to tag me in a group shot from a birthday party-- but found nothing upon searching my name.
It pains me to admit that I had rehearsed a few possible answers in my head for this exact scenario. I gave the explanation I deemed to be least controversial: “oh, I watched the Social Dilemma last week and got freaked out. I deactivated it for a week or so.”
But my real answer that I only felt comfortable disclosing to my close friends was this: Instagram was severely exacerbating my social anxiety.
The toxicity of social media has been increasingly acknowledged in popular culture, from influencers sharing unedited pictures of themselves accompanied by emotional captions, to documentaries such as the Social Network. However, I’ve found that the toxicity of social media is largely only acknowledged in relations to body image, privacy and addiction. The conversation of how social media can encourage insincere social interactions, however, has only seemed to take place between friends and not on a larger scale.
Consequently, I was embarrassed to admit that seeing a friend comment a fire emoji on a picture of a girl she said “she hated” or seeing someone post a birthday shoutout to her “soulmate” (how does she post a birthday shoutout every week? Does she have twenty best friends? Why don’t I have twenty best friends?) could ruin my day.
Worse, I found myself playing into it. I would find myself commenting and liking the posts of individuals who I didn’t actually like. It was addictive-- if everyone else was doing it, it seemed necessary I participated as well.
To me it seemed that this toxicity was generally accepted by twenty-somethings (especially college students) as just part of the deal. We put up with the fakeness across the platform in exchange for the serotonin boost that comes from throwing up a well received thirst trap or the unmatched satisfaction of deeply stalking that guy you hooked up with last week.
For some, the benefits of using social media may outweigh the cons (although I genuinely believe this is a small number). For others, they might simply view being on social media as a mandatory commitment of being part of Gen Z. After all there is no greater red flag than meeting someone for the first time and learning they aren’t “on social media” (or worse that they are on it and have 87 followers). After all, if there is nothing to stalk, how can I make sure they are “normal?”
After some deep self reflection, I began to seriously reevaluate my decision to be on Instagram. To me, it became overwhelmingly obvious that the cons outweighed the benefits. I could not, in good conscience, subject myself to an app which drained me of my time, self esteem and overall well being. I didn’t care that being on social media was some kind of Gen-Z obligation. Fuck that. I just wanted to get some peace of mind, and to work on my mental health.
I am now nearing five months of no personal Instagram. I’ll be honest, there have been times where I’ve nearly faltered (taking a flattering bikini pic and leaving it to rot in my camera roll was an especially tough challenge) but I’ve persevered.
In short, my break from Instagram has been transformative. I no longer have the deep rooted social anxiety which came from constantly observing ~1,500 people’s perfectly curated pictures with their ten best friends.
As my Dad often says, we were never meant to know this many people. He frequently brings up how when he went to his college reunion a few years ago, he caught up with acquaintances that he hadn’t spoken to in 25 years. Before that, he had absolutely no idea what they’d been up to. He keeps in touch with his close friends and forgets about the others. This diminishes the capacity for comparison drastically, and results in a more natural, healthy way of socializing.
There were other unexpected side effects which came from my Instagram cleanse.
First, I am more present. I had underestimated how much having an Instagram caused me to be mentally disconnected. Even if I was home with my family in New York, I would fixate on the actions of an individual across the world, some who hadn’t been in my life for years. Consequently, I missed being present in the place that I was actually in, with people who I genuinely cared about.
Second, I find myself doing things that made me happy, rather than things to make it look like I’m happy. When faced with decisions like “what do I want to do this Friday night?” I no longer weigh superficial considerations such as: if I go out, I will be able to take cute pictures and post them on Instagram! Since there was nowhere to post them, my desire to project an idealized image of myself had no pull. Instead, I base my decisions on how I am actually feeling (tired? drained? restless?). What a novel concept!
Last, I seek new ways of achieving validation. Interactions on Instagram, even as small as a swipe on my story, brought small moments of joy into my everyday life. Especially during COVID-19, where social interactions are few and far between, digital interactions made me feel connected to others in a time where loneliness seemed to be the norm. This was undoubtedly the hardest obstacle for me to tackle. Instead of relying on the instant gratification of a notification, I had to seek out validation from others in more genuine ways. I rely on phone calls, FaceTimes or texts to connect with people. What I found is that these methods of communication foster stronger and more genuine connections.
There are no rules to the game. Being on social media is not a mandatory aspect of being a member of Gen-Z and there is no right or wrong way to do Instagram. Whether it is deleting your account entirely, unfollowing someone who annoys you or muting 99% of your followers it is up to you- it’s your own well-being after all.
Reflect on your social media habits: when do I feel most drawn to post? When I’m feeling insecure? When I’m feeling depressed? When I’m feeling content? Which accounts that I follow trigger me? Why do I continue to follow them? Do I conflate my Instagram likes with my self worth? Do I feel socially obligated to remain on the app?
Consider your goal of being on social media: is it to connect with people I care about? Share meaningful content? Project a favorable image of myself? Or achieve external validation based on likes and comments?
Most importantly: do the benefits of staying on social media outweigh the cons?
If not, the door isn’t locked. You’re free to go.