While I tried to ignore the reality for as long as possible, I recently forced myself to face my addiction: social media. For many years I have been a user of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, VSCO and now TikTok. It never felt as though I used these applications more than any of my peers. I would try to not be on my phone when around friends. The only exceptions were when I wanted to upload a Snapchat selfie or some event occurred that required me to instantly look at my phone so my Instagram or Snapchat stories would be in better view.

My life didn’t seem to revolve around social media posts, except for when casually hanging out with friends would turn into hour-long photo-taking sessions for Instagram. These would be followed by an hour-long session of staring at our phones editing, posting and checking to see if people had commented on the new shirts we were so excited about wearing, or if our bodies fit a certain beauty standard or if we looked like we were “thriving.”

From where I stood, I couldn’t pinpoint a way social media was making my life worse. My grades were good. I had plenty of friends and healthy relationships. It seemed that the anxieties over feeling left out, body image issues, validation from peers and whether or not his “Snap score increased while he still hadn’t responded for hours were normal stresses that all my friends experienced. 

Whenever I pondered if my social media use was bad for my mental health, I concluded that not having it would be worse because I might lose my connections with long-distance friendships, relate less to friends and family that were experiencing the same things online and lose my platform where I was able to prove that I was “living my best life” to almost 2,000 people, most of which I would probably never see or speak to. 

Then I went public. On Instagram, there is a feature where you can make your public account a “business account” and get access to how many people are viewing your account, saving your pictures, direct-messaging your pictures and more. While I have usually considered myself a generally down-to-earth person, I found myself impulsively checking these statistics whenever I would post. The rabbit hole would only deepen as I would find myself checking who had liked certain things, viewed different stories or more importantly, who hadn’t. 

Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of growth at Facebook, says in his interview in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” that social media apps are designed to “psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible, and then give you back that dopamine hit,” regardless of if we realize we are falling into the trap or not. The validation of a like, comment, tag or direct message may entice you to constantly check the app in search of those dopamine hits. 

Around two weeks ago, I realized that I was no longer living for myself. I felt pressure to exercise and look fit so that people wouldn’t comment on my weight. I wanted to have my social media feeds be full of pictures with friends and smiles to ensure my followers that my social life is thriving. It felt good when 50 people would take the time to comment on my pictures about how amazing I was. I thought that Instagram was helping me build my self-confidence by allowing me to show off my life and feel proud. 

While posts do achieve this self-confidence boost to an extent, I started to question why receiving this validation in person from the people I see and am currently friends with isn’t enough. How is a like from my elementary school crush or my middle school ex-best friend impacting me? All that should matter is how I feel about myself. Why am I letting the actions and opinions of anyone but myself impact my emotions and self-esteem?

In an attempt to decide what I wanted to do going forward with my social media accounts, I deleted the Instagram app for a week. The number of times I went onto my phone and subconsciously looked for the app shocked me. I didn’t think I checked the app that many times a day. While it felt freeing to be Instagram-free for a week, I didn’t feel truly free knowing that my account was still out there for strangers to view and judge.

Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist at Google and co-founder for the Centre for Humane Technologies, explains in his “The Social Dilemma” interview, “Social media starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity.” While I told myself I was using Instagram to express myself and feel confident, it began to feel like my account was an entirely separate identity I had to maintain. 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, social circles have shrunk. Many individuals are only spending time with their closest friends and not meeting many new people. People are now solely making their judgments and impressions off of social media and pictures. I realized people aren’t meeting me and getting to know me right now — they are only judging from a feed of pictures and cheesy captions on a small phone screen. The ability of others to form judgements of me from my posts and not their actual interactions with me bothered me. 

So, I deleted my account entirely and started over. My new account has around 100 followers, made entirely of people I respect, know and can call friends. While I still find myself checking the app throughout the day, there is no longer a rabbit hole to fall into. While challenging, I cut out any followers that may impact my emotions or mental health. It is tempting to give in to the validation and attention search that social media is programmed to make you crave. 

What is scary about the social media dilemma is that we do not usually realize how deeply it impacts us. Social media is not considered a serious addiction that needs to be addressed, since everyone is suffering from the same addiction. However, the harm it causes to mental health, relationships and self-identity are real and substantial. I urge all users of social media to take a break, reflect on how your life is controlled or impacted by social media and take steps to acknowledge the social media dilemma and break free from its grip on society.

Lizzy Peppercorn can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu.

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