Checking my Instagram feed and Snapchat used to be as vital as my morning coffee. A cursory Instagram scroll warmed me from within and Snapchat’s 10-second soundbites provided a caffeine shove into reality.
Not any more. To use an analogue turn of phrase, a switch has been flicked in my mind: I no longer want to be so connected.
A study of 5,000 students commissioned by Digital Awareness UK and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference found that 63% said they would not care if social media did not exist and a whopping 71% had taken a break from social media. They join celebrities such as Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan, who have all undergone some form of digital detox.
It seems as if we countercultural millennials may really be on to something. Speaking to the Times on Friday, the tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, one of the pioneers of Facebook, admitted the site was designed to keep people hooked in a “social validation feedback loop” that consumes “as much of your time and conscious energy as possible”.
This same model, also used by the gambling industry, has been incorporated into the structure of social media outlets such as Instagram and Twitter to keep users using. Snapchat has come under fire for encouraging excessive use with its Snapstreak feature that keeps count of the number of messages sent between friends. Insidious stuff.
So I appear to be part of a nascent backlash. But up until September, I delighted at the sounds of my phone charging, buzzing and bleeping by my bedside table all night every night. I looked forward to bursting with a tap of my finger those little red globules it collected while I slept. So what happened?
Moving back home after graduating is a grim reality, one not reflected in the triple-filtered photos I looked at every morning, mid-morning, afternoon and evening. Influencers influenced, vacationers vacationed and the movers and shakers among my friends posted inspirational quotes in curly fonts. But even when life was good, looking at Instagram always made me feel bad about my lot. Like by like and comment by comment, I realised Instagram was the supersized version of keeping up with the Joneses, where thousands of garden fences stretched ready to peer over, reflecting better and brighter realities than mine.
Those three- to five-second snaps of people’s lives began to feel like disappointing foreplay that never materialised into a phone call or even a text conversation. The attraction of the “story” feature, which ensures that all drunken antics are available for your friends to see in the morning, began to fade.
The tipping point came in the form of a break-up with my boyfriend. Amid snotty tissues and a DVD of Love Actually, I took the advice of a friend and decided I didn’t want to scour my ex’s Instagram or Snapchat. I deleted both the apps. I didn’t want to watch his life unfold without me and I really didn’t want people to watch mine either. If all life’s a stage, I’m a drama school dropout knocking the Baftas off the shelves on the way out.
So it was goodbye, Snapchat and Instagram, and hello to the sound of my own thoughts in the morning. Initially, my withdrawal symptoms hit hard. My thumb trembled above the void where my apps used to be and I put my phone down only to pick it up and stare at the gap once again. The next week I went on holiday and grieved at the absence of those Insta-worthy photos that would remain imperfect, unfiltered and unliked by my followers. The drinks at the bar were unSnapchatted, the funny soundbites unrecorded and I felt a strange relief accepting the transience of life’s moments.
I missed the outfits of my favourite influencers and the ugly chin selfies sent to and received from my friends daily. But I didn’t miss the pressure to react to absolutely everything, be it with likes or emojis. The radio silence on my phone forced me to do other things, like read more and meet people to find out what they were up to.
Though I did not deactivate my Facebook account, I deleted the app and cleansed my friends’ list of people with whom I had quite tenuous connections. When deleting I asked myself: “Would I go to their funeral if they died?” If the answer was yes, they stayed.
I kept Twitter, partly because I really bloody love candid pictures of Jeff Goldblum. This millennial couldn’t afford a total withdrawal from social media. Besides, how would I remember my friends’ birthdays if not through my Facebook calendar?
Anyway, it appears I’m keeping distinguished company in my new-found social-media-sceptic phase. Speaking to the magazine Alternative Press last week, Rob Damiani, frontman of the band Don Broco, said his backlog of social media correspondence stopped him getting out of bed because “so much is expected of you”. Don Broco are so passionate about the all-consuming maw of smartphone addiction that the video of their latest single, Stay Ignorant, shows a preoccupied smartphone user failing to notice the alien invasion happening around them.
My social media was a quiet revolution, done because I didn’t want to feel the constant weight of comparison on my shoulders, or feel compelled to check how many friends had watched what I did after four glasses of wine.
I died a social media death on a brisk September day. But through that withdrawal I feel as if I’ve got myself back.
TWENTYSOMETHINGS WHO’VE SWITCHED OFF
SHURANJEET TAKHAR, 21
A master’s student at Oxford University and the founder of Tarakī, addressing mental health issues
“I’m using social media differently to try to make positive social change within my community. While growing up, I used social media for leisure activities – procrastination, looking at memes, and online shopping. I soon realised that mindless scrolling and a constant overload of information can really impact your physical and mental health. Social media was a continuous strain and not a point of relaxation.
“To move away from this, I have begun to appreciate how social media can be used to change people’s lives for the better. I recently launched Tarakī, a campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram designed to encourage Punjabi men to discuss and share their mental health experiences. We want to show Punjabi men that anyone can be impacted by mental health troubles – it is OK to discuss issues and, importantly, it is OK to seek help.”
Because social media is my job I have to cut back, so I don’t look at my Instagram after hours and I don’t use Facebook unless I need to contact someone, or for work. I find this allows me to create clarity between my online and offline worlds. It’s draining to be constantly connected, because sometimes I just want silence.
“Young people are appreciating the value of cutting down and of taking time away as we get a better understanding of how harmful it can be to never log out. Social media is addictive – we need to remember that.”
A law student at the University of Bristol
“I have social media cleanses quite often. I deactivate my Facebook and delete the Messenger and Snapchat apps from my phone. I don’t like the fact that anyone with my Facebook name can reach out to me, and I feel like it fosters an entitlement to other people’s time.
“I also like to get away from the noise of constant information. Seeing other people’s happiness and misery exacerbates my negative feelings, so I need to separate myself from all that. A lot of our online presence just provides companies with the means by which to tailor their ads to us – the more we contribute, the more data about ourselves we are giving away and the less control we have over what we are exposed to and targeted with.
“I think people, especially millennials, need to get away from social media more often. All of the above pursuits – studying, activism, writing – require at least some level of contemplation and action that must be undertaken away from social media.”