Last November, Instagram star Essena O’Neill made international headlines after she quit social media, denouncing it as superficial, and, in her words, “not real life.” The response was a mixed bag of praise for her bravery — and backlash by defenders of social media, who argued that it is up to the individual to choose whether or not to misrepresent themselves online. What fascinated me as these stories were circulating had nothing to do with O’Neill, but the simple fact that this was considered a story at all. That her departure from Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr was perceived as almost revolutionary to so many people illustrates just how much social media has permeated our culture and way of life.
When I decided to delete my Facebook and Instagram accounts last July, I had much less at stake than O’Neill did. I didn’t have 800,000+ devoted followers or a lucrative contract with YouTube. I used social media the way most of us do; to stay connected with friends. I most certainly didn’t feel that what I was doing was revolutionary, and, unlike O’Neill, I didn’t do it because I think social media is inherently evil or fake. But what I did experience immediately after deleting my accounts was an enormous sense of relief, like a massive weight had just been lifted off my shoulders.
One year later, here’s what I can say about how leaving social media has changed my life.
1. My social anxiety improved dramatically.
This has been perhaps the most profound — and least expected — change I’ve noticed in the last year. It seems counterintuitive, since communicating online is arguably less intimidating than face-to-face contact, which should in theory help those who struggle with social anxiety. But numerous studies have suggested that for those of us who are predisposed to things like anxiety and depression, excessive use of social media may in fact exacerbate these problems.
The best way to explain this phenomenon, based purely on my personal experience, is the highly competitive nature of social media. For better or worse, it presents us with the opportunity to compare our own lives to those of our friends, family, and peers in a way that didn’t exist before. And if for whatever reason we feel that we don’t measure up, the impact on our self-esteem can be disastrous. I didn’t realize until leaving social media how much these comparisons were negatively impacting my sense of self-worth, and as a result, perpetuating the anxiety I felt in social situations.
2. It motivated me to declutter my home.
The primary motivation for closing my accounts was the desire to embrace a more minimal lifestyle. Social media felt noisy to me, and leaving it was like turning down the volume for some peace and quiet. Since then, I’ve applied that same philosophy to the physical space around me. I’ve learned to let go of things in my home that I no longer need or that no longer bring me joy. It felt good to donate all of the clothing, pieces of art, books, and bric-a-brac that took up unnecessary space, and have since learned that the less clutter there is around me, the less clutter there is in my mind.
3. I no longer have FOMO.
As silly as the term may be, the truth is that it’s pretty liberating to not know what everyone and their mom is up to 24/7. Without the constant pressure to feel “relevant” and not miss out on the fun, I have found more time to focus on myself and nurture my own needs and desires. After 26 years on earth, I’ve finally embraced the fact that I am an introvert, and that there’s nothing wrong with spending a Saturday night at home reading a good book (or, let’s be real, binge-watching TV) rather than forcing myself to bar hop until 2 a.m. just for the sake of fitting in.
4. It was a major reality check about who my actual friends are.
One of the biggest fears I had about permanently deleting my Facebook account was that I’d lose touch with the hundreds of “friends” I’d accumulated over the years. The idea was preposterous, of course, as my Facebook friend list in no way reflected reality; my real-life friends made up only a fraction of that list. So although the list itself is gone, the relationships that matter remain untarnished. The only difference is that I value the time I spend with my friends much more than I used to, as it’s a lot more gratifying to communicate face-to-face, sharing stories in our own words, rather than indirectly through a photo caption or status update.
5. I’ve become a more mindful person.
These days, I use my phone for three things: to send and receive texts, to keep me from getting lost (thank you, Google Maps), and to listen to my favorite podcasts. Without feeling the constant need to compulsively check my phone, I’m more present in my everyday life. My senses feel heightened (probably because I’m not constantly distracted), and I find myself being more kind and respectful toward complete strangers. And because I have learned to immerse myself in the present moment, I’m a much more patient person as well.
6. I still appreciate all the good that social media has to offer.
Despite the negative effects it had on me personally, I still don’t think that social media is inherently detrimental. In many ways, I believe that these platforms have the potential to change the world for the better. With the constant real-time updates that news feeds provide, it’s almost impossible for the social media-savvy to ignore important current events, leading (hopefully) to a more informed public. In addition, sites like Twitter have provided a powerful platform in recent years for civil rights protests, most notably the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the end of the day, I recognize that social media is just a tool, and that the decision to use that tool for positive purposes or negative ones is ultimately up to the user. But for now, my choice is not to use it at all.
Images: Elodie Tavakoli; Giphy