With each new social media platform, from Myspace and Facebook in 2003 and 2004 to Vine in 2012 and Instagram Stories in August 2016, comes the impulse to try to become “good” at it: to gain a following by creating interesting content. At the same time, there's the ever-present itch to opt out of the competition for social media star entirely, to delete every single social media app and go off the grid and stop trying to succeed at something that can cause as much anxiety as satisfaction.
The conversation about this dilemma often happens during the most Instagrammable moments, like over brunch with friends, with everyone's arms tangled and stretched out, shadowing the food like palm fronds, snapping photo after photo. “Do you guys ever just wish you could delete Instagram? Facebook? All of it?” Often, the crowd will sigh in agreement — and then post a photo of their avocado toast. Sure, there are people who do delete the apps, sign out of the accounts, and disconnect from all of the nonsense and noise. But the majority of us don't, despite the desire to be done with the likes, comments, and follower counts. In fact, a study by the University of Vienna's psychology department found that in 2013, 46.8 percent of current Facebook users surveyed said they'd considered quitting the site.
In our hyperconnected world, the idea of abandoning all social media sparks much debate about whether or not going off the grid would cure us of our daily anxieties, text neck, and general lack of face-to-face interactions. Dr. Aaron Balick, psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics Of Social Networking, tells Bustle that social media is a double-edged sword in more ways than one.
“Social media offers us an opportunity to extend our social selves online. It does this by way of encouraging us to share our experiences publicly or semi-publicly (depending on your settings),” Dr. Balick says of the positive, creative side of social media that encourages self-expression. “The consequence of this is that we are primed to share — often before we even integrate or process an experience. This tilts our attention outward rather than inward, which can unbalance us as we become more about performing our egos for others rather than a more balanced approach.”
That concept can probably be confirmed in the last photo you posted on Instagram. Was it a reflection of your real life — the good, the bad, and the ugly? Or was it showing off the best, brightest, and happiest? I’ve written about the feeling of being unable to relate to your social media persona before, and it’s an experience I still feel acutely and often, both as a millennial and someone who works in media. Given the sheer amount of time we all spend on these apps, it should come as no surprise that they can influence our sense of self.
Statistics about social media usage make it clear that this facet of our lives isn't a casual hobby. Take the numbers from Business Insider, which say that 14 percent of our total time online is spent on Facebook. In fact, according to The New York Times, Facebook members spend more time on Facebook on average per day (50 minutes) than reading, sports or exercise, and social events.
And it's not just Facebook that's holding our attention, either. According to a survey done by GlobalWebIndex, in 2015 the average internet user was on social media (including Facebook, but also Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other apps) 109 minutes per day, which marks a steady increase from the same study done in 2013, in which users spent closer to 96 minutes per day on social media.
Much like our parents' warnings that if we watched too much TV our brains would turn to slush, it's fair to assume that our rampant social media use will maybe, eventually catch up with us — mentally, physically, emotionally. But just like we all kept watching TV because, hey, our brains seem to be doing OK, over 90 percent of us are still on social media, according to the American Press Institute. And the findings about the psychological effects of the platform actually don't scream inevitable doom for regular Snapchatters.
Studies on the effects of social media on mental health reveal varying conclusions. Take a 2012 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, titled "'Facebook Depression?' Social Media Site Use and Depression in Older Adolescents," which found zero link between depression and social media use in older adolescents. In fact, the study concludes by cautioning that, "Counseling patients or parents regarding the risk of 'Facebook Depression' may be premature."
However, there's also a 2015 study published in the Review of General Psychology that, while acknowledging the naysayers, proposes the idea that the connection is real — and far more complicated than you would think. The author of the study, C.R. Blease, PhD, noted the following.
"I hypothesize that users of Facebook may be more susceptible to causal triggers for mild depression under the following (specific) circumstances: (a) the greater the number of ‘friends’ that the user has online; (b) the greater the time that the user spends reading updates from this wide pool of friends; (c) the user does so regularly; and (d) the content of the updates tends to a bragging nature. I hypothesize that the frequency and the number of displays of higher status cues observed by the user may incur the perception of low relative social value among users (automatically triggering this response)."
While Blease's study concluded that more specific research is needed to determine the specific connection, another study, published by the University of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine, in 2016 found that "social media use was significantly associated with higher depression" after surveying 1,787 adults between the ages 19 and 32.
Regardless of the research that may link social media use to mental health issues, the reality is that disconnecting from social entirely isn't realistic for most people today. For Isabel Calkins, a 20-year-old student who works at a digital marketing company and deals with anxiety, social media is hard to escape. Her job is to be on social media daily. Diagnosed with anxiety at 8 years old, and medicated at 13, Calkins says that social platforms often exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression on a bad day.
"I know for me personally, that when I'm having a super bad night of anxiety/depression, going on social media makes it worse," Calkins tells Bustle. "I see how everyone else looks so happy and it makes me wonder why I am the only one who is struggling. In reality I know that that's not actually the case and social media isn't all that real, but when you have bad anxiety, you can believe anything you see."
For millennials like Calkins, social media is a large part of not only having a job, but getting a job in the first place. According to career site The Muse, 92 percent of companies use social media for recruiting, meaning that they're searching for candidates by looking at people's social presence and online portfolios. Plus, Calkins says that even though she feels pressure to stay on social media because of her job and "just deal" with the stresses of social media, using platforms like Twitter or Instagram for work is entirely different than using them for personal reasons. "There's less anxiety for me personally because, when I'm posting something on social on behalf of someone else, I'm less anxious about how people are going to view or judge me, because I am adhering to a certain brand," she says.
Even if you're not in digital media, or even in a field that requires some form of a social presence, there's still the social aspect of social media that may be keeping you from signing out or deleting the apps. In fact, according to Pew Research study, 15 percent of American adults say they have used online dating, and five percent who are in a marriage or committed relationship have met their significant other online, so even people who aren't hooked on perfectly curating their social feeds may use a form social media for other reasons. Dating apps like Tinder often require that you have a Facebook presence in order to sign up, and these apps often encourage the same compulsive checking that Instagram or Facebook do — you want to see who swiped right on you, just like you want to see who liked your post.
But even if your job doesn't require a social presence and you have no interest in Tinder or Bumble or Grindr, you're most likely still a member of platforms like Facebook and Snapchat — whether they're making you happy or not. So what does it take to finally sign out of everything?
Daniel Moran, a 24-year-old flight attendant, tells Bustle that a huge life change spurred him to reevaluate how social media made him feel — despite the fact that social media was something he used for his job as well as his personal life. "I was on social media for at least 10 hours a day minimum ... I would go from my job working social media, to a lunch break or to home and be on my personal accounts. I would be driving home from school or work and checking apps/notifications at red lights," Moran says. "It all adds up pretty quickly."
Moran says that a huge life change inspired him to log out of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Timehop, Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder (Moran kept YouTube and Tumblr, noting that these are the platforms that make him "genuinely happy").
"I just made a huge life transition as far as career and location...It was a lot at once and I had been struggling with depression and self-love months before the transition, so [social media] didn't exactly help," Moran says. "It's easy to start comparing yourself to others online and when you're struggling with self-love, it seemed right to step away so I'm not exposed to anything that might trigger more self-doubt."
When we first spoke, Moran was still "playing around" with the idea of staying off all of the apps for good. As of six weeks later, Moran has "slowly re-downloaded" all of the apps, and says that the time away from social has helped him realize that all of the apps really aren't as important as he initially thought. "I missed a month's worth of posts from people, and I didn't post anything for a month. It didn't matter," Moran says.
So is it even possible to stay off social for good? Adina Antonucci, a 25-year-old media relations specialist, certainly thinks so.
Antonucci has not been on any social media platforms for five years. Antonucci does admit she had Facebook for a short time in high school and college, but says even then she was only spending maybe an hour a day on the platform at most. Eventually Antonucci realized that even the time she spent on Facebook was preventing her from being present. So she deleted all of her accounts — and it actually stuck.
"I didn't want to compare myself to other people, and I was growing frustrated with many of my friends constantly on their phone, obsessing about how they and others appeared online. I didn't have a breaking point, I just decided I didn't want to participate anymore," Antonucci says. "I have no plans to get back on. Most of my friends still use social media and sometimes I look over their shoulder — and they show me which hashtags are trending or a photo of this girl-who-has-everything who's now getting married and say, 'Why aren't I getting married?' – and I feel no regrets. In fact, I feel a wave of relief once my second-hand social media experience is over."
"I feel happier, more present, and more self-loving. I have no one to 'like' my life but me — and when the pressure is off, and the digital validation is no longer an option, it's a lot easier to feel content and enjoy what I'm doing," Antonucci says of the experience. "I don't have to worry about capturing the moment through my phone, I can just be there and live in it.
Antonucci's experience may be a good source of inspiration for anyone trying to get off the grid, but she's definitely the exception to the rule. In general, it just isn't feasible for many American millennials who grew up on social media and are expected to maintain a presence for their social and professional lives.
Balick says that "the impulse [to quit social media] probably comes from a healthy place — an acknowledgement that 'this just isn’t good for me.' However, few people will stick with it because social media today is the environment where so much sociality happens, and people soon feel like they’re missing out."
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, similarly tells Bustle that going off the grid isn't sustainable because "social media fulfills too many key psychological needs." Dr. Rutledge says that while there are people who are more predisposed to using social media less productively than others, going off the grid is more complicated than just unplugging. "[Someone who chooses to quit all social media] would have to make the decision as to where to draw the line with technology. Does quitting everything include the telephone? The television? Email necessary for work? The key is figuring out what is working for you and what isn’t and designing your use around that."
Both Dr. Rutledge and Dr. Balick stress that social media is a tool, and that the key to prioritizing your mental health probably isn't quitting all of social media once and for all, but taking the time to get to know your own experience with the platforms and self-regulating based on that. Dr. Balick notes that social media inhibits us from evaluating our own needs. The key to having a healthy relationship, Dr. Balick says, is working to shift the attention from social media, and the lives of the people around us, back to ourselves — and that doesn't necessarily mean going off the grid, but simply finding a little more balance.
"By increasing our attention inward, we can ask ourselves honestly what is good and what is bad for me, and make sensible decisions based on that. Most people find that they could do with less social media. If this is the case, then it’s a matter of altering behavior and having the discipline to simply check it less," Dr. Balick says.
As for Antonucci, she says she's perfectly happy to stay off social media from here on out — despite the surprised reactions she's now used to getting when she tells people she isn't on social platforms. "I feel more connected to the world, and more engaged with my friends in their lives. I pick up the phone and I can hear them tell the story. I don't need a feed to give me the news, I can read it for myself. I can actually leave my phone at the house, be a better listener, and be more focused on the moment," Antonucci says.
"People often ask me why I'm not on [social media], and sometimes I ask them why they are," Antonucci says. "What do you get out of it? The next time you're comparing yourself to that girl-who-has-everything or the how-are-they-always-in-Europe-don't-they-have-jobs couple online, come back to that question."
While Antonucci's approach to media works for her, it seems the key to approaching social in a healthy way is finding a balance that works for you. If that means deleting all your apps, go for it. If it means simply checking yourself when you've signed on to Instagram one too many times in a day, that works, too. Dr. Balick suggests turning off notifications, taking small breaks from social, and always putting real relationships before the platforms as easy, sustainable ways to make sure you're handling social in a healthy way. And if all else fails, then go back to what's most important — your happiness. "Does your social media use make you happy?" Dr. Balick suggests asking yourself. "Be honest. If not, reconsider your relationship with it."
Images: Austin Courrege, Bry Crasch/Bustle