We know them, we love them, we are them: the social media breakers. Your friends and family who, unprompted, post to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to let their dozens of followers know they’re taking a step back from social media. Could be a month, a week, a few days, a few years, doesn’t matter — they’re doing this for themselves, for their mental health — and good for them.
We know the data: about 58.4% of the world population utilizes some form of social media, and approximately 5-10% of Americans “may be at risk of social media addiction.” Overusing social media can have a slew of negative effects — increased risks of depression, jealousy and delusional thinking, to name a few. For some, recognizing these symptoms causes a need for a social media detox, defined as “a period of time during which a person stops using social media to varying degrees.” The benefits of this break are variable: better sleep, depression and anxiety reduction, easing stress and a general improvement of one’s mental health. With plenty of healthy entertainment alternatives to social media, the idea of a detox seems pretty smart.
Enter: me, a social media breaker who didn’t post about it, but who won’t shut up about the fact that she kept Instagram off of their phone for approximately two years, either. Around the start of my sophomore year of college, I made a decision to delete all social media except Snapchat and YouTube from my phone — Snapchat because it was and is a key form of communication for my friends and me, and YouTube because I consume it more than traditional television. I took the break for the same reason everyone does — to heal the negative toll social media was taking on my mental health, my daily life and even my relationships. My Twitter and Instagram accounts were still available to me via my computer, and I would briefly redownload Instagram if I ever had something I really wanted to post about. I wasn’t entirely off the grid, which I considered healthy for me until about a year ago.
Partway through my junior year, I started visiting Instagram’s browser version on my laptop and phone with increasing frequency. I found that I still craved the connectivity and hours of mind-numbing content, meaning my detox was no longer working. It was time for the self-imposed child locks. I used my laptop’s accessibility controls to deny myself access to Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr URLs and downloaded a third-party app on my phone to do the same. For a while it was annoying, but it eventually felt satisfying to be actively blocked from the platforms that had previously performed MMA on my mental health.
All was well until I redownloaded Instagram over the summer. I was studying abroad for July and August, and I wanted to have it immediately available to me in order to connect with people in my program and share my activities with friends and family back home. I told myself that I would remove it again as soon as I got back to the States, and I did — for a while. The truth is that there was something pervasively pleasurable about getting back to the scroll and the world of likes, comments, stories and oversharing. Still, rather than quit cold turkey again, I put another child lock on the Instagram app: for every five minutes spent on the app, I was forced to wait an hour until I could use it again, and I couldn’t open it past 10 p.m. The funny thing about a child lock, though, is that they’re pretty easy to turn off if you’re not a child.
Despite popular belief, I am not a child. I’m a fully-fledged adult with an intermediate knowledge of both phones and mental health, which is why the frequency with which I disable my own child locks still baffles me. Every time it hits 10 p.m. and I’m not done reading a series of posts — the lock comes off. Every time I hit the five-minute limit and I haven’t finished watching a Reel — the lock comes off. And each and every time I tell myself that I’m disabling the child lock for just a minute or two so I can finish what I’m doing, I lie to myself. A minute or two turns into 30 minutes turns into an hour turns into an afternoon gone. Every time I tell myself that I am strong enough to overcome this addiction, I am proven wrong. Taking a social media break and being incapable of following my own rules thus demands answers to an important question: how do I get to the root of all this?
My Instagram journey started around the age of 13, the age of seeking affirmation and conformity with our peers as self-esteem and independence fluctuates wildly. Especially for young people, social media can have dangerous impacts on confidence and self-image — it certainly did for me. Instagram silently damaged my already shaky sense of self-confidence, and I didn’t even realize it until I deleted the app and got the help and time necessary to rebuild a strong sense of self. My return to the platform, however, was met with immediate repercussions. I was suddenly spending more time staring at my bank account, wondering why I couldn’t be an Instagram trust fund baby; more time staring at my future, wondering how the hell I would ever have any modicum of success; more time staring at the mirror, wondering why I couldn’t look like an influencer on my Explore page.
Objectively I know that social media is a comparison trap, but over the summer it had also once again become a key element to my online presence and communications. I want to stay on Instagram — I want to become at least a bit of a digital native again because I’m reluctant to lose Instagram as something I share with my friends and family. But beyond that, my competitive nature wants to prove that I am strong enough to keep Instagram on my phone and maintain a sense of self and confidence. This requires, in my mind, several steps of fortification. Do I think some people are capable of using Instagram for hours a day and coming away unscathed? Of course I do, but I am not one of them. I built a negative relationship with the platform nearly a decade ago, and that is difficult to reform. So, for one, I have to recognize that I am not capable of sitting at the center of the comparison trap. That isn’t me, and that’s okay, but it does require vigilance in reminding myself of who I am and what I bring to the table. Second, child locks stay on. I’m sort of writing this as a measure of accountability — if I can admit that I’m taking action to stay off of Instagram, then I have to stick to it. Thanks for being my accountability partner. Finally, I want to talk about it. I’m writing and publishing this article to discuss and express a desire and a hope that someone can relate. For me, one of the keys to improving my mental health has been finding people I feel I can safely talk about my issues with. This is my safety chat — I hope it helps me, but I hope it helps you, too.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.